Here's the problem on-line merchants have: How to retain your loyalty? You can hop, skip and jump around the World Wide Web looking for the lowest price on almost anything these days. So increasingly, Web sites are borrowing a page from the retail world to get on-line shoppers to return to their Web sites -- remember S&H Green Stamps? Well, today, you an earn all kinds of points for shopping on line. And while some of those points can only be redeemed for certain items, the ubiquitous airline mile is gaining favor as a universal form of currency. Or, at least, promotional perk.
The three largest companies that think they've hit upon the way to keep you returning to a site time and again are :
All three went public this fall; none are -- what a surprise! -- profitable yet. Each boasts between two and four million members who have opened accounts that allow them to accumulate points as they merrily shop on line. Cybergold allows you to redeem points for cold, hard cash; Netcentives lets you convert points to airline miles. They're called ClickRewards, and you earn them by shopping on 1-800-FLOWERS, Broderbund Software, Music Boulevard, Yahoo! and other sites. Get enough points, and you can get a ticket on Delta or other partner airlines.
A new entry called Momentum promises five miles per each point for shopping online at Eddie Bauer, Sharper Image and other well-known sites. You can cash in your miles on Delta or United.
There are some things to remember here. First of all, you have the opportunity to "double dip." Which means if you're registered to earn miles with one of the online versions of green stamps, and then you charge your purchase to a credit card affiliated with an airline, you're actually earning miles twice. And that is what every savvy traveler and mileage junkie lives to do! But just because you're earning miles by shopping on a particular Web site doesn't mean you're being a smart shopper. Usually, a cheaper price beats any advantage you gain by accruing miles. And if you're going to "work" one of the on-line incentive programs, make sure it's linked to an airline that flies where you want to go.
In the near future you're probably going to come across new point-based networks offering things like "beenz points" and "buzz points." I expect that eventually, the industry will consolidate. One thing I'll say for the cyber-generation of premiums: It's sure an easier game to play than when I was a kid. Back then, I had to lick all those darn green stamps and paste them into page after page of a booklet. Yuck!
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