This is the time of year for joy and happiness. For being grateful for the generosity of others. For acknowledging what has been given to us and being thankful for the gifts we have received.
Of course, I am referring to the day we can officially confirm all our Small Business Saturday credits posted.
For me, that day was yesterday. It took a little while for everything to appear, but now $110 in credits can be seen online on my American Express accounts. That’s across just 4 cards as I didn’t sign up for any authorized users. Yes, I was $10 short of my maximum because I wanted to see if a returned item would still trigger the credit (important data point: it doesn’t).
But as we are wont to do at this time of year, I have been reflecting on 2014 in both large ways and small. And during that reflection, the question that has become most prominent in my mind is whether Small Business Saturday is a complete and utter waste of my time.
I know it’s free money. But money is never free if you have to spend the day running around town collecting it, let alone planning out your journey beforehand. When we take into account not only the time, but the gas, wear and tear, opportunity cost, and whatever other resources we’re pouring into this thing, are we really making out like bandits, or just feeling better about a free green piece of paper with non-U.S. president Alexander Hamilton’s picture on it?
For those of you who jumped through all those hoops last Saturday, do you still think Small Business Saturday is actually worth it?
That map is utterly useless.
OK, look, I understand technology isn’t easy. If it was, I wouldn’t have to make an extra 20 minute trip to Walmart every week just to see if the MoneyCenter Express is working (important data point: it isn’t).
However, the Small Business Saturday Shop Small interactive map is clearly designed to prove that we need not worry about creating a computer like Skynet that is so sophisticated that it will take over the world and launch a nuclear attack to kill us all. That is, of course, unless Skynet launches an attack after becoming incredibly frustrated trying to use the Small Business Saturday Shop Small interactive map.
Let me demonstrate what I mean. I wanted to determine if my dry cleaner was participating in Small Business Saturday. I suppose I could have called them and asked, but Amex has done such a bang up job keeping actual small businesses in the loop on this promotion that the usual merchant response to any inquiry about it is “what’s Small Business Saturday?”
So instead I attempted to use the Shop Small map and searched near Los Angeles for TJ Cleaners…
First of all, American Express, let me let you in on a little secret. Arizona is not near Los Angeles. I mean, maybe in the “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and you find a dry cleaners 370 miles away from you” sense it is, but I was not going to drive to Arizona in order to get my shirts starched.
I attempted to correct the Small Shop map by manually reorienting it back to my city and clicking “Refresh Results,” which gave me this…
Which means TJ Cleaners is not participating in Small Business Saturday. Which, for the record, is wrong. My charge there was reimbursed, just as it was last year.
But just to be thorough, I deleted TJ Cleaners as a search term and simply asked for any dining places in Los Angeles that were participating in Small Business Saturday…
Apparently not one dining merchant in Los Angeles (population: 3.884 million) was participating in Small Business Saturday. Which, for the record, is obviously also completely wrong and multiple attempts at reorienting the map again or even switching categories didn’t correct the problem. I had to close my entire browser and restart it to get the map to start coughing up any sort of answers again.
Finally, there’s my favorite part of the Small Shop map… this disclaimer:
I’m not an attorney but I’ve become rather fluent in bank legalese over the years and I know the print is tiny, so let me translate it for you. What Amex is saying is it’s their map, but they don’t actually have anything to do with it, let alone provide the info for it. That comes from “other people” so if you end up getting screwed, blame those “other people.” In fact, let’s just agree to blame those “other people” for the fact that the map is so awful in the first place, okay?
$10 per transaction? Really? Just $10???
I’m not complaining about this one because I’m greedy. Rather, it gets back to my point about time spent versus benefit gained.
A few years ago the Small Business Saturday credit was $25 for one single transaction. That was generous, easy, and simple to understand. You go buy some holidays gifts at a local business for $30, you put them on your card, and they end up costing you just five bucks. Great deal.
Then last year Amex knocked it down to just $10 but still only 1 transaction for the day, which meant you got a total of $10. Many people agreed this was not worth doing unless you had a billion American Express cards and a merchant that didn’t mind you taking over their credit card reader for three hours on the busiest shopping weekend of the year (important data point: they don’t like it).
So this year, American Express gave us three transactions per card for a total of $30. Now, I’m sure Amex is trying to “spread the wealth” with this change and allow more businesses to benefit from the Small Business Saturday promotion, so we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that more swipes also mean more swipe fees and more money for American Express.
But they’re effectively taking what was once a simple promotion and turning it into a complicated mess. Even folks who are actually using this promotion as it was intended and aren’t “gaming” it by using multiple cards with multiple swipes to buy gift cards for future use and what not (another maneuver that’s beloved by small business merchants on the busiest shopping weekend of the year) just aren’t getting much benefit.
$10 off for shopping at a small business? Is that driving much real traffic, especially from people who are well enough off to have American Express cards in the first place?
And the nail in the coffin… no gas stations.
When last year’s Small Business Saturday promo was just a lame $10 per card, I was at least able to take advantage of my 4 American Express cards by heading over to my local gas station and pumping a tank of gas $10 at a time. It took a little longer, but at least it was just one stop and done. 15 minutes of pumping = a free tank of gas. Not terrible.
But this year, Amex made sure to include this beauty in their terms and conditions…
So apparently gas stations no longer qualify as small businesses. Don’t try to argue this with the gas station owner while he is explaining that he himself is not actually Exxon Mobil. Amex says he’s not a small business and that’s the end of the story. Go back to your fancy oil tanker, Mr. Gas Station Owner, and stop complaining about how much it costs to put your daughters through college.
The Devil’s Advocate says use your time better than on Small Business Saturday.
There’s a lot of abuse going on around Small Business Saturday every year, and quite frankly, some of these recent changes may be the result of Amex attempting to tamp down on the gamers. Fair enough. But if Amex really wanted to improve their promotion, the simple thing to do would be to go back to a $25 credit and eliminate authorized user cards from being eligible. I am sure that’s an unpopular position in this community, but when people are signing up for 99 authorized users just so they can pull a $10 credit for each of them, you end up with a promotion that’s lost its way.
If Amex didn’t want to eliminate all authorized users, they could easily limit it to just 1 or 2 of them. Or exclude Amex products that offer free authorized user cards. If you’re paying $175 for an authorized user card on your Amex Delta Reserve card, then fine, you can have your $10. But everyone else should be eligible only on their main cards. Of course, these changes would require some additional Amex technology. Oh boy. You know what? Never mind.
The greater point is that in its current form, Small Business Saturday isn’t worth all the planning and running around. I am not so successful that I think $10 isn’t important. But I am successful enough to know that spending 30 minutes of my life trying to acquire that $10 isn’t a good use of my time. So next year, someone remind me of that when the line at Marina Burger starts trailing out the door while I’m signing 4 credit card receipts for a $40 gift card (important data point: relax, lady, I’m almost done here).
Devil’s Advocate is a weekly series that deliberately argues a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believes in the counterargument. Other times he takes the opposing position just to see if the original argument holds water. But his main objective is to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom is valid. You can suggest future topics by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Posts by the Devil’s Advocate:
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Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.