Several commenters have mentioned here on the blog, several folks have e-mailed me today, and I’ve also checked over at my local Office Depot which had Vanilla Reload cards yesterday, but it does seem like Office Depot is withdrawing those cards from sale. Even stores that still had some, many are removing the cards from their shelves.
And there’s much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing over it, of course. There’s no question that this was one of the great, albeit short-lived opportunities: to buy money with a credit card, earn points, and use that money to pay off the credit card. It was the U.S. Mint (buying coins by credit card, depositing the coins, paying off the credit card) without the hassle of physical coins which were heavy and required transporting.
Except… even if Office Depot stops selling Vanilla Reload cards, all that means is the quintuple points play is gone.
- There are plenty of places that still sell Vanilla Reload cards
- There are plenty of places that still let you pay for those cards with a credit card
- There are plenty of places that sell Vanilla Reload cards, let you pay by credit card, and are in ‘bonus categories’ for certain credit cards.
Meanwhile, there are still gift card options at office supply stores.
Even if I can’t buy these cards at quintuple points, I can buy them wherever credit cards are accepted and use the spend to (1) earn credit card signup bonuses, and (2) earn miles paying bills that don’t normally accept credit cards, such as rent/mortgage.
Not every CVS carries Vanilla Reloads. Not every Walgreens will sell them for cash. So this is a little bit harder than before.
But Vanilla, still a new product, is getting broader and broader distribution. The American Express bet, even, is that the market for reloadable cash cards and especially those that double as a low cost bank account, have a bright future reaching a huge untapped consumer market. Products like these are hardly going away.
Vanilla Reloads aren’t dead. Bluebird isn’t dead at all. It’s just that the quintuple points leverage may be ending. Commenter Mileage Update offered some sage wisdom earlier today:
This isnt dead so no sense claiming it is. Vanilla and B[luebird] are big programs that just launched. IMO, its just starting not stopping you just have to be smart about it.
Many folks who knew about the opportunity to buy money with credit cards, earn 5 points per dollar in the process, and use the money to pay off the credit card wish that others didn’t know about the opportunity, too, so that they might have been able to take advantage of it longer.
And there’s a tendency to ascribe ‘motives’ to people who share deals, that it must somehow benefit the sharer. From where I sit, though, posts that are ‘complicated’ or ‘weird’ don’t appeal to a mass audience. You build readership, if you’re looking for page views, with generic and simple pieces. That’s why you see generic, simple, and mostly wrong articles on travel and miles and points in mainstream media.
I used to share a lot less details of deals than I do in recent days, and my motives have been to correct misinformation. When I started to see purposely false information getting posted on Flyertalk and in the comments of blogs, lots of scare comments meant to discourage readers from taking advantage of opportunities so that the commenters could selfishly hope to keep the deals for themselves, I wanted to make sure to correct that misinformation. That’s always been a mission of this blog, and it seems to have taken on much greater urgency in the past few months. I’m not proud of my fellow frequent flyers. Some of them just talk in code on Flyertalk. Others have created their own private forums. That’s their right. But when they come out and actually attempt to mislead other frequent flyers, I have a problem with that.
Is it possible I share too much? Sometimes, and in any given case it might be. I shared a Travelocity deal that Travelocity said caused an uptick in their bookings that they noticed and they decided not to honor it. On the other hand, I shared the Wyndham 16,000 point bonuses which my continued coverage after they indicated they weren’t going to honor likely helped get the deal honored for everyone. Similarly the Alitalia $300+ discount recently, they started cancelling tickets but I worked with some media and that seemed to influence them to go back and honor any ticket that cost at least one euro cent. Who knows, there’s a balance, and sometimes I am certain I get that balance wrong.
Which has very little to do with what happened here. What actually killed the leverage in this deal?
The Bluebird thread on Flyertalk has nearly 150,000 views and over 2000 posts. The Getting Spending Up Without the Mint thread has over 650,000 views and more than 2000 posts. It’s also been covered broadly. On this blog, on Frugal Travel Guy and the Points Guy and One Mile at a Time and Mommy Points and of courage on Frequent Miler.
Because it was an amazing deal. It still is an amazing deal.
But the leverage that came from using cards which bonus office supply spend with quintuple miles? That was really really expensive for the card issuer. The offer is meant to entice people to get the card, and to offer the bonus only on a limited amount of a cardholder’s expenses. But this wasn’t just a way of getting quintuple points on all spend, it was a way of doing it quickly and on a bigger scale than ever before. It was inevitable that the card issuer would notice and wouldn’t be keen on it. And with the scale of purchases on their cards, they did notice I’m sure.
I don’t know the economics of Vanilla Reload cards but I have to imagine that Office Depot made out fine with them or else they wouldn’t have agreed to carry them, so the massive sales there must have been fine by the corporate office. Certainly the Vanilla folks had to be happy with their product’s uptake.
And American Express, they probably don’t like cards being used for nothing but bill payments and cash withdrawals, but these are features built into their program and the phase they’re in is pushing out the Bluebird card, there’s been huge attention to that card and potentially even greater uptake than they could have even hoped for at this stage.
The biggest costs were being borne by paying out 5 points per dollar on all of the spending, so I have to think that it’s the bank that worked with Office Depot to discourage the sale of these cards, much easier for them to do that I’d imagine than to change the marketing and benefits of the cards themselves (and end quintuple points on office supply purchases).
Of course, and it isn’t just Office Depot, but office supply stores continue to sell gift cards — including gift cards which with some effort can be turned back into cash (including by buying gift cards at an office supply store and using those cards to buy Vanilla Reloads elsewhere to load onto Bluebird if you must). And if you’re willing to pay shipping (in some cases) then you can even going through a shopping portal to buy those gift cards and earn a cash rebate or points for the purchase in addition to the points from the credit cards.