Air Miles Analytics

The only “loyalty card” program that I have the patience to participate in is Air Miles. There’s only a small real-world pay-off for doing this, as its reward levels are so high that using its points to actually fly anywhere requires years. But I like having a thing that I do as part of the weekly grocery shop. It is, in other words, a completely irrational surrender of my purchase data with little reward. The gamification of shopping.

So, what better thing to do that to pull data out of my purchase habits; that way at least I learn something.

Air Miles does not make this easy: there’s no Google-style “takeout” option, only an Account Statement History page that defaults to showing the last 31 days of transactions:

My Air Miles Transactions for 31 days

There’s an option in the top-right corner of this page to change the date range, but the maximum time period is the last twelve months, and I want all the transactions, not just a year’s worth.

Fortunately, it’s possible to hack the page. If you select “the last twelve months” from the selector, you’ll see that the URL changes to:

https://www.airmiles.ca/arrow/AccountStatementsHistory?range=-11

The key here is the -11 which, it turns out, is a parameter that determines the number of months to go back in time; you can manually override this by changing it to a higher number, like this:

https://www.airmiles.ca/arrow/AccountStatementsHistory?range=-144

I found, by trial and error, that I could go back to April 2012–almost 6 years–by doing this. I know I had Air Miles transactions before then, but perhaps 6 years is the limit of their current system.

With 6 years of data in my browser, I used the Table to Excel Firefox plug-in to save the data in the table to the clipboard as tab-delimited ASCII. I pasted the result into an ASCII text file that looked like this:

   Date    Sponsor       Description   Reward Miles    Bonus   
 13 Jan 18      SOBEYS INC    CHARLOTTETOWN   1 REWARD MILE FOR EVERY $20    +9           
 23 Dec 17     SOBEYS INC    CHARLOTTETOWN   1 REWARD MILE FOR EVERY $20    +9           
 22 Dec 17     IRVING    SACKVILLE CIRCLE K    2X REWARD MILES FOR 20L FUEL           +2     
 21 Dec 17     SHELL CANADA    ELDON PE    EVERYDAY IN-STORE OFFER    +1           
 16 Dec 17     SOBEYS INC    CHARLOTTETOWN   1 REWARD MILE FOR EVERY $20    +1           
 09 Dec 17     IRVING    SACKVILLE CIRCLE K    1 REWARD MILE PER 20L OF FUEL    +2           
 27 Nov 17     SHELL REGULAR MILES   NORTH RIVER PE    STANDARD OFFER     +1           
 25 Nov 17     SOBEYS INC    CHARLOTTETOWN   1 REWARD MILE FOR EVERY $20    +2

I loaded this file up into LibreOffice, and created some pivot tables to do some analysis.

Air Miles by Sponsor

Sponsor Miles
Air Miles 50
Boston Pizza 2
Budget Rent-a-Car 14
Eastlink 79
Foodland 14
Irving 27
Kent 90
Lawtons 40
Michaels 12
Needs 1
Old Navy 11
Rexall 5
Shell 9
Sobeys 2665
Staples 39
Toys R Us 1
Total 3059

Transactions by Sponsor

Sponsor Transactions
Air Miles 1
Boston Pizza 1
Budget Rent-a-Car 1
Eastlink 17
Foodland 2
Irving 14
Kent 3
Lawtons 20
Michaels 6
Needs 1
Old Navy 1
Rexall 1
Shell 6
Sobeys 233
Staples 8
Toys R Us 1
Total 316

What did I learn?

I earn most of my Air Miles at Sobeys, which makes sense as this is a grocery store where I shop almost every week, and where the cashiers make a point of asking me for my card: there have been 303 weeks between April 2012 and today, and I’ve shopped at Sobeys 233 times, or 77% of those weeks.

Setting aside various “buy 3 barrels of pickles and get 10 Air Miles” bonuses, I’ve earned those miles at Sobeys’s standard rate of 1 mile for every $20 spent, so the 2,665 Air Miles came at a cost of roughly $53,300 in grocery shopping.

In addition to travel rewards, Sobeys allow redemption for cash of Air Miles at a rate of $10 for 95 miles, so my 2,665 miles earned from Sobeys can, in theory, be redeemed for $280 in groceries; that’s 0.5% in savings when compared to the amount I had to spent to earn those miles.

What is left out of that equation, of course, is what changes in my purchase habits Air Miles was able to shape, either through steering me to buy different products, or more of the same product.

Redeeming miles for travel, on the other hand, sees my 2,665 miles earned from Sobeys lands me in the 2500 mile tier, which, no matter high or low season, will fly me, return, as far west as Ontario (1,700 miles), as far east as Newfoundland (1,200 miles), and as far south as Virginia (1,500 miles):

Air Miles flight map (detail from AirMiles.ca)

That ain’t nothing. But then again, “get a free flight to Ontario for every $50,000 you spend on groceries,” doesn’t exactly sound like the greatest bargain in the world.

Why is this important?

You only have to look to the psychology of Amazon Prime to see analytics and incentives being used by companies trying to manipulate our purchasing at a deep level. Generally the data underlying these manipulations is opaque to us, designed to put the incentive program in the best light, and to prevent us from making educated choices that might ultimately benefit us and not the company.

It’s no surprise, for example, that Amazon doesn’t provide a tool to allow you to analyze your spending and discover whether Amazon Prime is actually saving you money or not; Amazon has significant stock in maintaining the illusion that it is.

In the same way, the Air Miles transaction dashboard is organized to give the appearance of transparency, while skewing the options and the presentation to de-emphasize the negative. When I earned 9 Air Miles on January 31, for example, I got myself 0.52% of the way to a flight to Ontario: there’s a reason Air Miles chooses to express that as a “9” rather than as a “0.52%.”

There’s only going to be more of this, more often, in the future, and if we want to assert our rights as consumers to make this incentivizing transparent, now is the time to do it.

To that end, following the guidelines on the Air Miles privacy page, I emailed the following access request yesterday to privacyoffice@airmiles.ca:

Under the provisions of the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, I would like to request a copy of personal information held by Loyalty Management Group Canada Inc. or its affiliates about me.

Specifically, I would like a CSV, Excel or other machine-readable file containing information about transactions recorded resulting from my presentation of my Air Miles card, since the card was issued to me, with the following data for each transaction:

  1. Date and Time of Transaction
  2. Sponsor of Transaction (i.e. the business where the card was presented)
  3. Location of Transaction
  4. Description of Transaction (i.e. “1 REWARD MILE FOR EVERY $20”).
  5. Reward Miles accumulated as a result of Transaction
  6. Bonus Miles accumulated as a result of Transaction
  7. Any other personally-identified information transmitted by the Sponsor to Loyalty Management Group Canada Inc. or its affiliates about me, or about the Transaction, at the time of Transaction.

The Act gives Air Miles 30 days to respond. Stay tuned.

Comments

David's picture
David on February 7, 2018 - 11:02 Permalink

This is interesting and astute analysis - it is amazing how many people will look at you as if you have two heads if you opt out on any and all programs that offer you some kind of reward at the end. I find the same thing happens when you tell people you're not part of, nor have interest in, the Google suite of tools.

If you consider time, choice not influenced by psychological factors, the excess junk mail you have to get rid of, or personal data to have value then these things are not "free" at all and the decision then is whether or not those costs are worth it to you.

Paul's picture
Paul on February 7, 2018 - 13:50 Permalink

Neat post Peter, please do let us know what you get back.

I'm *shocked* they made it as easy as being able to send an *email* to request this info. Maybe they'll write back and tell you you have to use one of your hard-won stamps to mail a request!

Stephen's picture
Stephen on February 8, 2018 - 09:34 Permalink

Very interesting.

I have never broken down how much I spend but with my Airmiles tied to my mortgage, all banking, groceries, maritime electric, amazon and everything else I will buy regardless, I have been reaching the 6000 pts per year mark. But I also play their game. If Sobeys offers me points for buying a gift card, I'll pick one up on the way in and use it on the way out. AirMiles would have significant data on me.

For rewards, at roughly 30cents per point, it's difficult to compare all flights as equal value because cashing in for a flight to northern Labrador comes with a higher saving than a flight to Montreal despite costing the same amount of AirMiles.

Susan White's picture
Susan White on February 8, 2018 - 11:42 Permalink

Really interesting analysis. This reaffirms my decision to cut up my Air Miles card last year. All those years of handing it over at checkout and feeling like I wasn't really getting much out of it in the end. I've felt freer not having to think about Air Miles.