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Credit card concierges offer last-minute holiday shopping help

By Michelle Crouch

If you're panicking about how you're going to finish your holiday shopping this year, help may be as close as your credit card.Credit card concierges offer last-minute holiday shopping help

A growing number of cards are touting free, round-the-clock concierge services that can do more than just get you tickets and restaurant reservations; they offer some serious holiday shopping support.

Among the ways your credit card concierge can help save you time this holiday season:

Locate hard-to-find gifts. If you're trying to find something that's sold only overseas (like the wine you drank together in Paris) or an item that's sold out online or in local stores, a concierge can often find it and have it shipped to you. A Visa Signature card concierge, for example, called more than a dozen stores nationwide to track down a pair of size 7 "catwoman" Chuck Taylor sneakers (which were sold out in most stores) for a cardholder.

Brainstorm gift ideas. Your concierge will ask you a series of questions about your hard-to-buy-for recipients, from what they do for a living to what their hobbies are, and then send you a list of possible gift ideas. So if you know someone who loves to cook, the concierge might send you the hottest new cooking gadgets or cookbooks.

Will your credit card concierge really help you shop? A true tale.

So the idea of a concierge to help with holiday shopping sounds great, but does it really work? With less than two weeks until Christmas, an unexpected family medical crisis had left me without even one gift for my three children or any others I typically exchange presents with. It was enough to give my type A brain a panic attack, but it was also the perfect opportunity to try out my free Visa Signature credit card concierge.

I called the toll-free number and connected with a friendly concierge. I told her I was hoping she could help with seven gifts for my kids. Could the concierge find them online, buy them for me and ship them to my house? After checking with a supervisor, she said that she could. I e-mailed her the list of the items.

I also needed help with an idea for my father-in-law, a recently retired professor who loves to tell jokes, play on his iPad and had recently impressed the family with his bowling skills. (She elicited those details, and others, through a series of specific questions.)

The concierge said she would get back to me in 24 hours, which was more like a day and half. She apologized for the delay, and said she was checking to see if she could make purchases from Amazon, which was the only seller she could find of several of the gifts I had listed for my children. Eventually, a supervisor gave her the OK, as long as I set up an Amazon account she could use (apparently, Visa concierges are not allowed to create "registrations" for cardholders.) I hung up, relieved to be able to cross something time-consuming off my to-do list.

She also e-mailed me her list of ideas for my father-in-law, which were actually quite good. I liked her suggestion of getting him a gift card that he could use to buy apps for his new iPad, as well as a gift certificate to a bowling alley she found that was just a few miles from his house.

She asked if I wanted her to purchase those items for me.  Truth is, I probably could have bought them myself.

But then I figured, why not?

Compare prices. Whether you want to get your grandson a Nintendo DS or your husband a black leather jacket, a concierge can research where to get the item for the lowest price. Or if you don't know exactly what you want, he or she can send you a list of the options, their prices and how they compare.

Shop for you. American Express recently launched a full-service gift buying concierge for its Platinum cardholders. You send a list  of recipients, their shipping addresses and what you'd like to get for each, and the concierge will do all the legwork, from researching the options, to shipping it with a gift note to checking to make sure it arrives in time. Other card concierges say they can do some buying for you as long as it's not more than a few items and everything can be bought online.

"When you think of a concierge, you tend to think, 'They can book a taxi for me or help me get a restaurant reservation.'" said John Carr, head of the premium consumer credit products group at Visa. "But we've seen a significant increase in the number of calls that are shopping related."

Typically, about one in every five calls to Visa's Signature card concierge service is someone who needs shopping help, Carr said. But that number was up 40 percent in November, as folks turned to their concierges to help them with holiday shopping. And Carr expects an even bigger boost this month. 

All Visa Signature, MasterCard World Elite and American Express Platinum cards offer a concierge and many other cards do, too, especially those that target customers with annual household incomes of more than $100,000. If you're not sure if your card offers the perk, call the number on the back of your card and ask.

American Express, the first to offer a concierge in 1984, has a reputation for the best service, though you'll have to pay an annual fee of at least $450 a year to get it.

Melanie Backs, manager of public affairs for American Express, said the concierges who work for the company's new "Platinum Concierge Gift Buying Service" are specially trained in gift buying and to help cardholders come up with gift ideas. The gifts must be purchased with an American Express card, Backs said, but otherwise, the sky's the limit.

"Cardmembers were already turning to our concierge to help source gifts, and there was so much interest that we decided to establish a separate service focused on gifts," Backs said. "It's a way we can give our members a little time back during the holiday season."

See related: More credit card holders can count on concierges


Published: December 16, 2011



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