[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. For current terms and conditions, please see card agreements.]
American Express’s Membership Rewards program has been renowned for offering one of the most flexible rewards programs. Cardmembers can redeem their points for travel reservations, airline miles, or statement credits. And today, American Express has just added the option of mobile gift cards that can be redeemed for in-store purchases at select retailers.
How Mobile Gift Cards Work
A cardholder visiting a participating retailer can choose to order a mobile gift card using his or her smartphone via a downloadable app or by visiting AmericanExpress.com. (If you have the current AMEX app, you need to update it to see mobile gift cards.) This virtual card can then be used for purchases in-store, online or over the telephone. When used in the store, you select a gift card in the account’s Gift Card Wallet and choose the “tap to pay” option. Then, show the barcode and the gift card number to the clerk at checkout. Finally, you may need to show the retailer your American Express Card for security purposes. In general, Membership Rewards points are worth one cent each towards both traditional and electronic gift cards, although promotions regularly feature some discounts. This represents a better value than the “Pay With Points” option which only returns .6 cents per point as a statement credit towards past purchases.
I spoke with Chris Besendorfer, VP, Loyalty and Membership Benefits for American Express. He explained that Mobile Gift Cards will allow customers to redeem their Membership Rewards points in new ways and offer new delivery channels. “It fits with how technology is evolving,” said Bessendorfer. Currently, customers must wait for gift cards to be delivered electronically or through the mail. In fact, even electronic redemptions can take up to three or four hours.
American Express sees the benefits of this product enhancement in two ways. First, it helps consumers to save time. No longer would they have to order a physical gift card in the mail or complete a lengthy online redemption process. The second benefit is convenience. American Express’s mobile app saves gift cards within a virtual wallet that can’t be lost or destroyed. Customers will also be able to track the gift cards they have purchased and their remaining balances.
“American Express is trying to change the way customers interact with the Membership Rewards program,” explained Besendorfer.
Ironically, electronic gift cards cannot actually be given as gifts in the initial release of this functionality, although this feature is expect to appear eventually. Participating merchants currently include Banana Republic, Gap, Old Navy, PBteen, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, West Elm and Williams-Sonoma with more stores expected to join the program next year.
New Tablet Features
In addition to their mobile gift card app, American Express is also announcing enhancements to their existing Apple and Android tablet app that is used for redeeming Membership Rewards points. Cardmembers can now exchange Membership Rewards points for goods and services from over 60 merchants. I spoke with Dustin Harris, the director interactive development for American Express. He explained that the new tablet app contains a Tablet Points Summary featuring an interactive bar chart which shows up to two years’ worth of monthly point activity. In addition, cardholders can receive 20% off rewards from popular merchants such as Bose, Wine Enthusiast, Michael Kors handbags, LG televisions and Dyson through the end of November
There was a time when travelers had to request a paper voucher from their frequent flier program to be redeemed for an award flight at a ticket office. Thankfully, most reward programs allow customers to perform those functions over the phone or through a computer. Nevertheless, tablets and smartphones are quickly becoming the way that we conduct business electronically. As American Express extends the value of its Membership Rewards program to our mobile devices, it can only become more valuable to cardholders.