Why your favorite retailer disappeared from airline shopping portals

Apr 28, 2020

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We’ll be the first ones to tell you how much we love online shopping portals.

They’re one of our favorite ways to earn additional points and miles with little effort required — in fact, you can do it while sitting on your couch. All you have to do is sign up for an account with your favorite airline’s portal. You’ll be redirected to your desired retailer’s website, where you can start earning bonus miles.

Like we said: Easy.

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Shopping portals frequently offer “elevated” bonuses as well, where they’ll up the ante of how many bonus miles you can earn. Sometimes, it’s more than double what’s usually offered.

Taking advantage of these portals is one of the first things we tell points and miles beginners to do. Depending on your spending habits, you can easily rack up thousands of miles that you can use later for free travel.

But recently, we’ve noticed some changes at our favorite airline shopping portals.

Many popular, big-name retailers that were once fixtures in these portals are no longer listed. For example, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Target have disappeared from the Delta, American and United shopping portals, though Bloomingdale’s is still available on JetBlue’s portal.

Even smaller retailers such as Vineyard Vines and Pottery Barn are nowhere to be seen.

Screenshot courtesy of United MileagePlus Shopping portal.
Screenshot courtesy of United MileagePlus Shopping portal.

Related: 13 travel essentials to buy priced from $8 to buy during Nordstrom’s super sale

It’s no secret that retail has been in a tailspin in recent years, and the coronavirus pandemic could essentially put the nails in the coffin. The New York Times reported that “very few [department stores] are likely to survive.”

To that end, many retailers have employed drastic cost-cutting measures in an attempt to keep their businesses afloat. As retailers have to pay the airlines to appear on the portals, affiliate marketing is one of the first things to go in economic downturns.

“Airline shopping portals are a special version of a more general marketing tactic that retailers call affiliate marketing. Essentially, the retailer agrees to pay a commission to a third party who is able to bring new customers to the retailer,” Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis Communications North America, told TPG.

The challenge, though, is that retailers would prefer not to pay a commission if they would have sold their goods to customers anyway, Goldberg explained. Retailers frequently debate how much of the affiliate fees they are paying are incremental.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, said, “With discretionary spending clearly down, some retailers may feel that the airline shopping portals no longer produce enough volume or profit to justify the relationship.”

While the retailers may return to the portals when economic and health circumstances improve, retailers want to cut out what is marginal right now, even if they lose access to those customers.

In other words: “It may be enough that the portal’s economics are no longer appealing,” Harteveldt said.

This is especially true for some mid- and small-sized brands, as portals are critical ways to elevate their exposure and establish their brand credibility. Larger companies, such as Nike and Target, might not need the exposure that the portals provide.

No retailer is immune to current market conditions, even Amazon. The company dramatically cut its commissions from 8% to 3% in many categories, Goldberg pointed out.

Retail analyst Sucharita Kodali agrees, pointing out that airlines get a revenue share — usually 3% to 8% of whatever the value of the transaction is — but that retailers are “cutting back on all marketing.”

Unfortunately for airlines, it’s all out of their control. As a United spokesperson told TPG, “Participation in MileagePlus shopping is at the merchant’s discretion.”

While, yes, we love our shopping portals, they’re not the only way to rack up bonus miles on online shopping purchases. If you find yourself online shopping quite a bit, do yourself a favor and get a credit card that earns bonus points or extra cash back on these purchases.

Related: These are the best credit cards for online shopping

If you want to take it a step further, you can buy gift cards at a discount from sites such as CardCash. We’ve seen gift cards on sale at retailers that have disappeared from these portals — like Target and Bloomingdale’s — anywhere from 4% to 9% off.

And if your favorite retailer isn’t available on an airline shopping portal, or you just want to get some cash back on all your online shopping purchases (we don’t judge!), Rakuten (formerly known as eBates) is the way to go if you can find it there … though keep in mind that when a retailer disappears from one or two shopping portals, the odds are high it may disappear from most to all of them, especially since many of these sites have similar backends.

If you’re a member of Rakuten specifically, you can earn either cash back or American Express Membership Rewards points for making purchases online at one of more than 3,500 online retailers after clicking through a Rakuten affiliate link. You can easily install a Chrome Browser plugin that will automatically get you cash back, too.

Featured photo by Guido Mieth/Getty Images.

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