This year’s holiday shopping season is already unlike any other. Homebound consumers are doing most of their shopping online, and credit card issuers are adapting their rewards offerings. Here’s how to navigate holiday shopping in the COVID era.
If you’re like most people, you’re doing more holiday shopping online this year – and possibly less overall.
Many were hit by pandemic-related layoffs or closures or had to cut back hours to home-school children.
Yet most of us aren’t spending much less than usual, a survey by the National Retail Federation shows. Consumers are spending slightly less on gifts than last year, but more on holiday décor. A September poll by CreditCards.com showed 71% of consumers planned to do most of their holiday shopping online this year.
The NRF reported that many people started before Thanksgiving and a third shopped “Cyber Weekend” – new term merging Black Friday and what used to be Cyber Monday. (Black Friday might as well have been Cyber Black Friday this year.)
But options and priorities have changed dramatically. We’re traveling less, crafting more, cooking instead of partying, fixing up our homes and working out in them. Reward card issuers have scrambled to alter rewards to meet altered needs.
Here’s what to expect and how to use your credit cards to holiday-shop during the pandemic.
See related: How to save money on holiday shopping
Plan for shipping delaysIf you’re opting to forego holiday gatherings as advised by the CDC, you’re probably shipping gifts you’d normally present in person.
Nobody wants to wait in the long lines and risk delays with the stressed U.S. Postal Service. But you can still get gifts delivered on time. Led by Amazon Prime’s two-day guarantee of free shipping, other big chains such as Walmart, Target and Home Depot now offer fast, free shipping.
To compete, local retailers and eateries have upped their game this year when it comes to curbside pickup. Check their websites and social media for deals.
Trade travel for home rewards
If you tucked your travel rewards card away this year, take another look. Usually, travel rewards are worth more when redeemed for travel, and hopefully that will come back soon. But since we’re still grounded, many issuers changed the rules to make rewards more attractive for homebound spending.
The Citi Prestige® Card* is offering 5X points for up to $1,500 of online, cable and streaming purchases through the end of 2020, and purchases at supermarkets and restaurants are now eligible for the card’s $250 annual statement credit. Likewise, you can get between 3X to 5X bonus points at grocery stores on most Chase co-branded cards through Dec. 31.
If you’re looking for a rewards card for supermarket spending long term, Amex offers two great options. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers 6% cash back on spending at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 in purchases per year (then it’s 1%), for a $95 annual fee ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year). And the American Express® Gold Card offers 4X points on U.S. supermarket spending on up to $25,000 in purchases per year (then it’s 1 point per dollar). But keep in mind the Amex Gold carries an annual fee of $250.
See related: Best credit cards for grocery shopping
If you saved big on travel and gym membership this year, you might consider spending some of that savings on in-home fitness. You may even be able to use travel rewards.
When it became clear that Chase’s popular Sapphire cards were not providing much travel value for their annual fees – $95 for Preferred and $550 for Reserve – the bank partnered with Peloton, the exercise equipment and fitness platform that’s taking the place of gym memberships for many.
“We’ve heard from our cardmembers that personal wellness and connecting with others through new experiences are core to their lifestyle – even more so during this past year,” said Marleta Ross, general manager of Chase Sapphire.
“We have thousands of classes across more than 10 fitness disciplines, taught by world-class instructors,” said Karina Kogan, vice president at Peloton.
Many shoppers are investing some holiday dollars on local shops, spas and eateries they’d be sad to find shuttered when the pandemic ends.
To make that easier, American Express launched its first Shop Small Holiday Gift Guide, where cardholders can use Membership Rewards points through Dec. 31 to shop a curated collection of gifts, from artisanal (candles made in Harlem, puzzles with art by female artists) to high tech (smart cooking systems).
Amex discontinued the 2X Membership Rewards points at select small businesses in September, but you can still find local merchants on its Shop Small Map.
Main Street districts are offering events with discounts to encourage shopping and enjoy socially distanced Yuletide. Many have group pages on Facebook where you can sign up for alerts. Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, for example, made its traditional Wednesday “Stag & Doe Nights” leading up to Christmas an all-day event to avoid crowding.
Shop your principles
People are more likely to support brands that back their values this year, according to surveys. Many shoppers have supported eco-friendly sourcing and women-owned businesses.
This year, a survey by Tinuiti found, 21% of shoppers – and 28% of Gen Z – are seeking out Black-owned businesses and brands. One way to find these is via hashtags such as #shopblackowned on Instagram. Another is to Google whatever you’re looking to support. Many cities and towns have spotlighted Black-owned businesses this year.
Amex recently partnered with Showfields to curate a collection of 50 Black-owned businesses for the holidays. Amex cardholders can get a $10 statement credit by enrolling then spending $20 minimum at Showfields.com by Dec. 31.
“As the world recovers from the pandemic, we recognize that Black-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected,” said Walter Frye, vice president of global brand engagement at American Express.
Shop value and outdoor fun
A McKinsey survey shows nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers are trading loyalty to brands and stores for value and convenience. Consumers are three times more likely to choose lower-cost brands or retailers when buying standard products this year.
Gift cards can help with that. Discover is offering up to 20% added value on gift cards, including $25 gift cards for $20 for Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble and Old Navy (gift cards range from $5 – $200 in $5 increments).
Watch for rewards to continue shifting as we replace plane travel with day trips and home-based pursuits. Popular gifts this year are likely to involve cooking, gadgets and outdoor gear.
See related: Escape your home for a safe holiday staycation
Take advantage of Amazon
Nobody wants to see Amazon take over the world, but they make it hard to resist. If you order something via Amazon Prime, either for yourself or delivered to someone else, nine times out of 10 it arrives in record time as promised.
If you’re a Prime member, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card is a no-brainer. Cardholders get 5% cash back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases.
The Discover it® Cash Back card also offers 5% on Amazon this quarter, along with Walmart.com, Target.com and Best Buy. You must activate the offer to get 5% back in the bonus categories, and you can earn up to $1,500 in combined purchases during the quarter (then it’s 1%).
The Amazon Prime card, on the other hand, offers 5% cash back at Amazon year-round. Once you’re approved, the card becomes your default payment method on Amazon and points can be applied as a gift card discount at checkout.
On Amazon’s Shop with Points page, you can click on several reward programs, including Citi ThankYou, Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Discover and Hilton Honors. All allow you to link your rewards account directly to your Amazon account and use points like cash.
Be warned: If you’re strapped for cash and have a ton of reward points on any of these programs, they may be worth cashing in. But the only ones that are going to give you a good return here are cash-back deals like Discover where you’re paying with dollars you’d be getting as statement credit.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example, are worth 0.8 cents on Amazon – well below the 2 cents per point they’re potentially worth. It takes 500 Hilton points to equal a dollar on Amazon.
Just as frequent flyer miles work best on the airline itself, hotel points are designed to be used on the hotel’s properties. On anything else, including car rentals, Hilton points are worth 0.2 points compared to the 0.6 to 0.75 cents you’ll get on their hotels.
You might find it’s worth shaving the price of a product down with whatever you have in your wallet. Just know what you’re getting in the trade.
Most reward programs offer ways to donate points to charity. Your frequent flyer miles, for example, can be used to fly medical staff and supplies at a time they’re desperately needed.
This year, many issuers have made it even easier to donate. With Chase Freedom cards, you get a 25% bonus if you redeem Ultimate Rewards points for charitable purchases. Capital One cardholders can choose from over 1.2 million public charities in the U.S. via Network for Good, and the issuer covers transaction fees and sometimes reward points for donations.
Donate your cash back bonus for Discover to one of nine charities benefiting cancer, animals or children, your choice, and Discover will contribute an extra $25,000 to the organization that receives the most cash back bonus donations this year.
With so many doing the bulk of their holiday shopping online, scammers are out en masse, especially on social media. Beware ads on Facebook Marketplace or Instagram that link to sites mimicking familiar ones. Always check the URL before you proceed.
“To guard against fraud, we encourage consumers to regularly review and monitor their transaction history,” says Jennifer Delgado, spokesperson for Discover, which offers free fraud alerts to cardmembers.
If in doubt about the legitimacy of a seller, search for it on the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker before entering your credit card information.
On unfamiliar sites, avoid using debit cards, Venmo or prepaid gift cards, which give the seller direct access to your funds and leave you no recourse. Paying via PayPal or credit card allows you to dispute the charge later if necessary.
See related: Online puppy scams can compromise your card information
If you do get in a jam using your card, contact the issuer pronto.
“If you’re a good customer and they don’t want to lose you,” says Linda Sherry of Consumer Action, “they’re going to try their best to help you.”
*All information about the Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. This offer is no longer available on our site.