Secrets of Cartera Commerce Revealed: Inside the Company that Brings You Miles for Online Shopping

One of the best ways to earn miles is to go through an online shopping portal to make all of your purchases. That’s because it’s free miles (or in the case of cash back portals, free money) for something you’re going to do anyway.

It costs you nothing and you get miles or a rebate. There are offers like 2 to 10 miles per dollar spent at whatever merchant you were going to buy from to begin with. And sometimes there are bonuses, like earning 2500 bonus miles for spending $250 through a given shopping portal in a specific period of time (amounting to an extra 10 miles per dollar).

Online merchants will pay commissions on sales to websites that advertise them. The way these shopping portals work, then, is to give back a large portion of their commission to the consumer, as an inducement to start off at their portal. And they provide the commission in the form of your preferred loyalty currency.

And yet with all of the players involved — an airline frequent flyer program, an online retailer, and a mileage mall technology provider — things can go wrong. In a low margin business (“sure they lose money on each transaction, but they make it up in volume!”) customer service investments haven’t always been a top priority. And that means frustrated consumers expecting to get miles, when those miles don’t post correctly 100% of the time. Every time I mention an online shopping portal bonus, I’ll always get readers leaving comments about times when they didn’t get their bonus.

I spoke about all of this last week with Tom Beecher, President and CEO of Cartera Commerce, a company which runs many of the online shopping portals in the market.

When you go through the American AAdvantage shopping portal, through MileagePlus shopping, or the US Airways Dividend Miles StoreFront (among many others) you’re actually working with Cartera.

To be sure, this isn’t a perfectly-transcribed interview. My questions especially aren’t exactly how they were phrased to Tom and I’ve condensed a few sections of our conversation together to make more sense organizationally and for easier reading in what was a wide-ranging discussion that went over our originally planned 30 minutes. We kept talking, and I made him late for his next appointment. It was great fun, and he was more than generous with his time.

Cartera seems to be behind a lot of the online shopping portals, almost ubiquitous, but also almost always in the background. How big is Cartera, and what’s the advantage to your partners in working with you over another shopping portal provider?

We work with 4 of the 10 largest credit card issuers, and 6 of the 10 largest airlines in the U.S. Our goal for the airline is to be an end-to-end service provider, to build and host a website that matches their look and feel, branding, and to the consumer it still feels like they’re interacting with the airline. We go out and assemble a network of relationships with about 935 online retailers.

Because we work with all these airlines and banks, we have an audience of 90 million consumers, and are able to leverage that huge audience in negotiations. As a result we’re getting commission rates above what they’re willing to pay others, ‘above rate card,’ and a large portion of that goes to the consumer translated into whatever loyalty currency is most relevant to them. In many cases in addition to the commission rate, there’s often another offer on top of that like free shipping, or a 10% discount on their purchase.

You mention getting discounts in addition to miles, won’t using a coupon code often eliminate the ability to earn miles for a purchase?

The way the mechanics actually work, the consumer who goes through one of our airline shopping portals, a one-time tracking gets set up. They click to complete the transaction at the retail site. It’s fine to put in a coupon code that came from our site, but if they use a coupon code that came from somewhere else that will turn off – break the link – and they won’t get the benefit of the loyalty currency.

The safest thing to do when shopping through one of our sites is to only use coupon codes that come from us. It’s possible that other coupon codes won’t break the link, but often they will, and it’s hard to predict.

Shifting gears to the potential here, how many miles are people earning for online shopping?

We dug into some of our data, we haven’t looked at it exactly this way before, but there are people earning lots of free trips in a year. We have some people who spend $10,000 a month through our portals. There are people who do that who can earn hundreds of thousands of miles a year. We even have people who have more modest spend, $1000 a month, who are able to earn more than 100,000 miles in a year.

There’s a tremendous opportunity here. Total online shopping in the last holiday season was $40 billion dollars. At an average rebate in miles that could mean earning 85 billion miles. We’re already awarding billions of miles in a year.

Is it just miles, or do you manage any of the cash back sites too?

Some of the bank sites we work with are cash back, but we really focus on the loyalty currency, and that’s why you see us working with airlines.

What do you see as the biggest challenge going forward, or the biggest area of change in earning miles for online shopping?

One area that’s really interesting, both an opportunity and a challenge, is the rise of mobile. We’re just starting, investing in mobile the last couple of years, to see e-commerce shopping on mobile. We see more on tablet than on phone, that’s going to shift shopping behaviors in ways nobody can predict.

We’re in various stages of progress optimizing websites for mobile shopping. Most of the airline sites are moving in that direction if they aren’t there yet. Another direction we’re moving is embedding our offerings in mobile apps.

Regardless of the platform, my understanding is that you’re giving most of the revenue from merchants back to your customers. And at the same time many of your shopping sites seem to offer frequent bonuses to encourage more shopping. How does the economics of that work?

The bonuses are trying to drive more engagement among shoppers. Once consumers have had the chance to make a couple of purchases through one of our sites, they tend to get hooked, they really ‘get’ the value proposition, so anything we can do to drive that value proposition home makes sense. The best thing for us is the person who goes online to shop, and starts their shopping session on one of our sites.

I don’t want to give you any ideas, as a consumer this wouldn’t be good for me, but I wonder why you offer these bonuses so broadly — to consumers that are already hooked — rather than more targeted bonuses meant just to engage new customers?

Probably we’ll see more targeting over time as we get more sophisticated in our marketing, but there’s nothing wrong with rewarding loyal customers either.

Let’s talk about when things go wrong. How can a consumer make sure they’re getting the miles they expect?

We send out a confirmation email within a couple of days of the purchase, so we let you know that we got the tracking, everything worked and the miles are on their way. Depending on the retailer and their return policy and airline policy, this can take 45 days for miles to get posted though typically it’s much faster.

If consumer made a purchase and is due miles but they aren’t showing up, we offer tier 1 customer service on most of our accounts, in some cases tier 2, but we always focus on customer service.

It can take time to research a consumer issue, often we have to go to the merchant to get the information on a sale and so we have to wait for the merchant to get back to us.

The best way to handle things is to reach out to us directly. It’s a business where we have more than a million consumers who shop us in any given year, there’s a lot of people coming through the system. I’m sure there are times when we don’t respond as quickly as we can, or it takes longer to resolve an open issue or question that it should. But it’s not an economics question, sometimes it just takes awhile to assemble the facts. There are times when consumers get frustrated as I would in my own transactions. We’ve invested substantially in customer service in the past 18-24 months, and made great strides.

We’ve made technology investments and substantially expanded customer service staffing, including using outside resources and in-house resources. We’ve substantially ramped up the investment in customer experience.

I’d like to talk about what may be a touchy issue. It’s one thing for consumers to get frustrated when miles don’t post automatically the way that they should, and when they’re not getting fast turnaround on having an issue resolved. But what about that game with two cups and a string, information on an offer from a merchant gets posted incorrectly and you decide it’s too generous to stand behind? I’m thinking here of three and a half years ago where there was a $5 Verizon phone charger which promised 83,000 miles.

With the exception of thankfully exceptionally rare things like the Verizon issue, I think on its face a lot of people thought it was a mistake. With the exception of things like that where there was an error, the offers are good and people can rely on that. That happened once in 5 years.

[GL: With the Verizon offer, everyone was offered a full refund and 2500 miles for their trouble.]

Tell me, I notice that sometimes merchants are available through one shopping portal but not another. Why is that?

We have about 935 merchant in-network, including 47 of the 50 largest online retailers, offering collectively more than 20 million products. Consumers come to our site and can find each product or merchant. The particular offers vary program-by-program, some don’t use all of the merchants. A program can opt out of any particular merchant, usually because they have a separate deal with that merchant, or a particular vendor might compete with the company offering the particular shopping portal.

[GL I take this to mean that’s why you won’t see mileage-earning for Expedia puchases on an airline’s shopping portal — the airline wants you to book on their own website, not be rewarded with their mileage currency for booking through a competing website.]

Do you want customers to know more about Cartera Commerce, or are you happy in the background? If background, then what do you want consumers to know?

We’re perfectly happy to be a background brand, an “Intel inside” brand to use the old formulation. The important message is that if you care about loyalty currency on your credit card, this is something you shouldn’t miss out on and odds are you’re missing out

There are a lot of people who care about the currencies we offer. There’s something for free that we’d love you to take advantage of.

Thanks, Tom, for your time. I know I’ve kept you longer than we planned and I really appreciate it.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Pingbacks

  1. […] a bit of a geek for miles and points, so most normal folks might not find this article about how those airline shopping portals work all that interesting.  But I did.  I’m sure that says more about me than it does about […]

  2. […] View from the Wing blog editor Gary Leff recently caught up with Cartera CEO Tom Beecher to ask him how merchants, airlines and banks benefit from these programs, and how consumers are using them to earn miles, points and cashback, and save money. If you’re interested in learning more, read the article “Secrets of Cartera Commerce Revealed: Inside the Company that Brings You Miles for Online Shopping.” […]

Comments

  1. the biggest flaw is they don’t have amazon… that’s where most online shopping is done.

  2. Their biggest flaw is execution – the miles don’t usually post when they should. I’m sorry but Cartera is out of the question for me, I’m done tracking what I should have received. I’ve specifically stopped all “portal” shopping. My experience has been that Southwest portal was the worst…

  3. In the past few years their tracking has been MUCH better. I’d say they capture 95% of what I buy through them.

    When there is a targeted bonus it almost always fails.

    Customer service is excellent and well informed.

  4. I’m one of those who gave up on Cartera a few years back. To keep things simple & painless I stick with Ebates and Mr Rebates – sure they are cash back verses miles, etc., but I’ve never had a single problem with either. 100%

  5. Any idea who is/was running the Hawaiian Airlines portal? I used it a few times because it was the only one with Amazon, and it was AWFUL. One large purchase which should have been 1 HA Mile/$ posted as just a 1 mile credit. Customer service was atrocious and more or less blew me off. Oh, and there was no way to respond to a customer service email. I had to keep sending them a new inquiry with their response to my previous inquiries quoted at the top.

    If it was Cartera, I hope they have fixed the problems with that particular site. If it was someone else, avoid that backend company like the plague!

  6. Good interview Gary, but I think it really does highlight the key issue with Cartera. So by Tom’s own admission here they both try very hard to “look like” the sponsoring airline, and they do not want to be in the spotlight, yet when things go wrong recourse is very difficult. Airlines just put their hands up and say “it’s not our problem” and then we all know that Cartera customer responsiveness has been very, very poor in the past. In fairness I have had all of my issues resolved *eventually* but it has taken far more effort than it should have and I am sure many would just give up. I’m hoping they read the comments here and my suggestion is to implement some kind of transparent support system where you can log issues and have a know turnaround time. As long as the turnaround time is reasonable, say something more like 48 hours not 4 weeks, and that items don’t get closed until the customer actually agrees the issue has been resolved, then people will get less frustrated and more confident that if things go wrong there is some reasonable path to resolution.

  7. I’ve found their customer service to be poor in the past, but recently it has been much better. When miles haven’t posted (which is most of the time unfortunately), they have actually responded quickly and posted miles, at least within the last few months. They really should create a system like eBates, so that you can see the portal is tracking correctly. I really should switch over to something else, but offers like 60 miles per dollar at Magazines.com are just too good to pass up…if they actually post.

  8. 2 observations:
    1. Did he really say $1,000/month through the portal was “modest”? Or was he pointing out that some people can really maximize their mileage earning?
    2. Regarding points not posting, it would be nice, but probably improbable, to show something in the browser window that you are shopping through the portal. That way you would know for certain that you still had that connection. However, there are a myriad of technical issues with that.

  9. @Jim L – $1000 was ‘more modest’ than the biggest spenders through their sites doing $10K+/month… not that it’s objectively modest

  10. @Nick- Your comment might be one of the dumbest things I have ever read. You stopped portal shopping because you didnt get points all the time?!?! Well now that you are not shopping on portal you are getting points 0% of the time. Why not just shop through the portal and see if it works. Even if it works only 10% of the time you are getting more than if you never use the portal.

  11. I prefer airline portals rather than cashback portals. Often times cashback portals have a minimum before you can cashout, which for me can take a long time to achieve. Airline portals deposit what you have earned right into your account without having to hit a minimum.

    Also, Mr. Rebates has been the worst for me. They only seem to give me credit for my smaller purchases. If I make any sizeable purchase which gives cash back of $10 or more they always deny me the money with BS excuses. I will never use that site again.

    @ Gary- Can you do a similar interview with iDine. I’d be interested to know how they select restaurants. I find that most of the restaurants participating in their program tend to be horrible.

  12. @Jared – Yes. I stopped portal shopping because you didnt get points all the time. I tend to focus and spend my time on things that work like they should. Actually, it is ironic – I find your comments to be some of the dumbest things I have ever read:
    1)”Why not just shop through the portal and see if it works.” It doesn’t. I’ve tried.
    2)”Even if it works only 10% of the time you are getting more than if you never use the portal.” No explanation is needed for the stupidity displayed in this comment.

    Have a great day!

  13. i used them for the 1st time when they had the 16x bonus with sears. Of course they never credited and said to me that i got credit from someone else which is why the miles didnt post. This was of course false so i stopped using them/

  14. I wish they had Amazon like most.

    Thanks for the great post. I would also vote for an Idine interview.

  15. Cartera, for those who don’t know better, is a terrible company. Miles and targeted bonuses rarely post, and emails and follow-up emails to emails that are ignored are ignored once again and again, until you, as a consumer, give up. Most of the shopping portals are quite good. Cartera, in my experience, is the worst.

  16. I purchased a laptop under the AA Shopping Mall’s 2500 miles bonus Christmas special. The laptop had problems so I took it back to Best Buy. They wanted to replace it with another which wasn’t in stock, so said they’d refund me and then place another order for either the same or a different laptop of my choice. I explained to the store manager that my main concern was keeping the 3000 total miles including the bonus. He said he would work with me to assure this, researched it and said I would be able to keep my miles and bonus while replacing the laptop. I trusted him and not only got neither miles or bonus, just a debit for the original laptop purchase. The only reason I bought this laptop was for the miles and bonus. I asked for help from Cartera and they said I had not connected via the AA website. I explained the situation and they never replied. Until they do I intend to write about this in every related venue on the web.

  17. @Nick- The portals have never worked for you. Do you need practice typing a web address and clicking a link. They are pretty simple to use and while there may be hiccups sometimes, most people are able to get credit for their purchases the majority of the time. I think you might need to practice using the internet.

    As for the explanation that you claim is not needed, well I would appreciate if you could provide it. Please tell me how spending 30 seconds accessing a store through a portal is not worth your time even if there is a possibility you might not get the points. If you don’t use the portal you get absolutely nothing. If you use the portal there is a chance (a very good one if you actually know what you are doing) to get free miles.

    I hope you had a great day too! Though given your negativity and tendency to simply abandon things that don’t live up to your standards, I think you might have trouble enjoying anything.

  18. UPDATE: NOT MUCH HAS IMPROVED SINCE THIS INTERVIEW. TOM BEECHER MENTIONS THE INVESTMENTS AND IMPROVEMENT YET I HAVE NOT SEEN IMPROVEMENTS OR VALUE IN THIS SUPPOSED TIER 1 AND TIER 2 CUSTOMER SERVICE LEVELS.
    I have been a great customer with my Citibank American Airlines Advantage credit card since 1986. In the past 5 years I have spent over 1M dollars on this credit card alone. Additionally, I am an American Airline Advantage Platinum and Million Miler member and have been for many many years.

    I am horrified and at the business practices of the Cartera Commerce Company. I am even more horrified at the customer service practices and their limited access. I am shocked that they offer virtually no means in which show the offer at the time of transaction and expected miles one will earn from the retailer so there is no trusted means to go back and reconcile your mileage statement for accuracy. Not to mention the retailers have nothing to do with the miles credited/promotion offered so you are forced to rely on an email to a customer service rep who seem to be uncaring and have limited interest or knowledge on righting the complaint or inquiry except for canned responses. When asked repeatedly for a manager’s help I have been completely ignored. Here’s my most recent experience.

    It came to my attention that recently that I had not earned miles through Cartera’s American Airlines eshopping site despite following all the required protocol when excuting the transactions. After closer review I came to realize that this was the case for many of my transactions occurring but not limited to over a year ago. Needless to say this was quite upsetting and annoying given that I purposely have gone to the eshopping site to receive the American Airline mile. The time and energy necessary to go back and review the charges, find the receipt both from the retailer and the credit card statement, then to check that the Cartera site to see that I have accessed the retailer from their site and all the cross checking is very labor intensive- particularly given the amount of transactions. I have contacted Cartera via email to explain the issues. I submitted the records I had which included the transaction receipt from the retailer, the credit card statement, the shipping receipt and the copy of the stores access through Cartera’s website to the retailer; additionally, I have the browser history on my laptop for most of these transactions showing where I was on the eshopping site/Carter’s website and then immediately following it on the retailers website. Despite submitting all of this proof not to mention some of the retailers are SOLELY online retailers they are refusing to credit my miles to my account stating that the retailers cannot access their records past 6 months to prove that the means of access was through Cartera’s site….DESPITE CARTERA’S SITE RECORDS SHOWING THAT I ACCESSED THE RETAILERS ON THE SAME CORRESPONDING DATE OF THE RETAILERS RECEIPT, THE CREDIT CARD CHARGES ALL OF THE SAME DATE INCLUDING RECORDS OF SHIPMENT!! This company is a TOTAL SCAM. I have asked repeatedly to be contacted by a manager and completely been ignored. (It doesn’t even make sense why given my history, all the proof of purchases and site access even for the solely online retailers they need the retailer to confirm a transaction though they have all these other records including proof of access from their own website details.) Not only that, Cartera is not interested in reviewing my account and correcting these errors. The site itself is prone to incorrect account information; one time I will log in and get one amount for mileage accrued and store visit history that is completely incorrect and then I will log in several more times and get a completely different amount of miles accrued. Additionally, my browser shows I have been to a retailer through their site and the store visits do not show the visit in my history. They have issues with their site, they know that they have had these issues/mistakes yet refuse to make amends for mistakes for transactions that I have supplied them with documented proof.

    I have been a long time credit card customer, I have a million miler status for a long time of the frequent flyer program through American Airlines Advantage. I intend to file a complaint through the airline frequent flyer program, the credit card company, the FTC and the MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERALS OFFICE and any other means to make sure that these fraudulent practices are known and hopefully stopped. I am an honest and customer in good standing who has been dedicated to this credit card and airline for 30 years and my consumer rights are being violated by this company. I have in good faith used their site as a valued customer to the credit card and the airline but they give no merit to this whatsoever and in fact ignore my repeated request to get help from a higher up in the company. I intend to also reach out to the CEO who has apparently won the “entrepreneur of year” award. I guarantee if he is worthy of this award that he would not support what is going on in some of the accounts and I guarantee that the credit card company and airline would not support one of their valued customers being treated like this through a program that represents them and their reputation.

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