Last week, among the usual glut of frequent flyer-related emails in my inbox was one from United with the following subject line: "Introducing Mileage Plus Shopping."
Of course, United already had a mileage mall—a network of online retailers, all of which award miles for purchases—as do all United's competitors.
So what's new about the current iteration, aside from the name? (It was the Mileage Plus Mall; now it's Mileage Plus Shopping.)
I put that question directly to United, and it provided me with the following list of new features:
- Members can now register a credit or debit card to earn miles at participating in-store retailers and catalogs.
- Mileage Plus Visa credit cardholders are automatically registered.
- More online retailers.
- Earn miles for dining reservations via OpenTable.
- No need for members to register to shop online anymore—they can just login to Mileage Plus Shopping using a membership number and password.
While a notable departure from the previous mileage mall, the addition of participating retailers' brick-and-mortar locations is sparse at best: Buca di Beppo and Claim Jumper restaurants, Golfsmith, Jos. A. Bank, Mori Luggage, Orvis, Sally Beauty, and Sunglass Hut. Presumably more stores will be brought into the network in the coming months.
Earning miles for making restaurant bookings at OpenTable is nice, but doing so yields a very modest 60 miles per reservation.
The other enhancements are similarly modest in value and scope.
There is a bonus to drum up interest in the revamp: 250 bonus miles for making a purchase of at least $50 by October 31, and another 250 miles for signing up to receive shopping emails and remaining subscribed for at least 30 days.
If Delta's miles-for-shopping email alerts are any indication, you can expect to receive at least one email per day, touting a limited-time bonus or discount from one or more of the Mileage Plus retailers. Long term, that's more information than most consumers want to bother processing—or at least it has been for me. It's also a lot of marketing effort being deployed behind shopping miles.
And it's not limited to Delta and United. JetBlue's latest program enhancement was the launch of its own ShopTrue online mall, boasting an industry-leading 800-plus participating merchants.
Perhaps that's the big story here. Mileage malls have become a fact of travel life. Or, more accurately, they've become a fact of travel-rewards life, expanding as they do the opportunities for consumers to earn free trips for non-travel activities. They're big revenue generators for the airlines (who sell miles to the merchants), and a big mileage generator for program members (who have significantly expanded opportunities to earn miles and rewards).
Frequent flyer programs have truly evolved into frequent buyer programs. And unlike changes to the names of the mileage malls, that's a distinction that marks a real difference.
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.