Air Miles is hiding certain merchandise from collectors who have enough points to buy it, claim some customers.
But the loyalty rewards programs contends that's not the case. Instead, it says it offers a personalized experience where members' online access to products is streamlined according to their tastes and engagement with the program.
The issue has surfaced as many customers rush to redeem their points to beat the clock. At the close of 2011, Air Miles introduced a five-year expiry date on rewards miles. That means on Jan.1, 2017, any unused miles collected before 2012 will expire.
Customers struggle to redeem points
Some customers have told CBC News that when they log onto the Air Miles website using an account with few miles, they see premium merchandise they can't afford.
But when they log on using a different account with many miles — enough for those premium products — the items vanish.
"I have never felt so cheated by a company," claims Ottawa Air Miles collector Ashlea Langevin.
Langevin says when her in-laws discovered that their Air Miles would soon expire, they told her she could use their points.
Langevin logged onto the company's website a couple weeks ago with her own account, which had a paltry 1,375 miles. She set her sights on a Coleman camping stove for 1,700 miles.
Minutes later, she says, she signed in using her in-laws' account to buy the stove. That account contained about 2,800 miles, enough to purchase the product.
But Langevin says this time she was presented with less merchandise and the stove was missing.
"I was shocked and figured I made a mistake." So she searched for the item again using her own account.
"There was the stove on offer again," claims Langevin. "I was really angry to find out the way Air Miles is messing with their customers."
Langevin believes the company may be posting out-of-reach items for customers with few miles to convince them that once they rack up more points, they'll reap great rewards.
"But then once you obtain the necessary amount of Air Miles, the rewards are no longer available," she claims.
Tara Wells in Sackville, N.B., says she had a similar experience. Her father had 15,000 miles, a good chunk of which would soon expire. So he asked her to help redeem his points.
Wells did online research using her husband's account. She compiled a list of merchandise her father could get, including a vacuum, food processor, digital camera, and a 3D printer.
Each item required many more miles than the 3,000 her husband had in his account.
Wells says she sent the product links to her father but, for him, the links only brought up an error message.
"I thought, that's really strange," says Wells. But she claims she too couldn't find the products when logging in using her father's account.
"It seems like a shady game they are playing," concludes Wells.
"Give the low-mile holders access to things way out of their price range. But restrict them for the guy with the gold account and 15,000 miles who can afford them."
A personalized experience?
CBC News heard similar complaints from other collectors including Harry Anderson from Orangeville, Ont.
He says he tried to buy his son a barbecue using his big stockpile of Air Miles. But he claims it would only show up on his son's account, which didn't contain enough points to buy it.
CBC News asked Air Miles for an explanation.
The company didn't deny that different collectors see different products online. It said what people get to view can vary according to their history of purchases.
"Collectors see different rewards depending on their activity within the Air Miles program," said spokeswoman Kahina Haffad in an email.
She added that segmenting collectors is standard practice for loyalty programs and that "personalization, which has moved beyond segmentation, has fast become an effective practice in marketing."
But Wells points out that the Air Miles website gives no indication when collectors search for merchandise that rewards are personalized or filtered.
"It makes no sense why they just wouldn't make everything available to everybody."
Rewards expert Patrick Sojka agrees. He also received a complaint about product search discrepancies and wrote about it on his resource site, Rewards Canada.
Sojka told CBC News he believes all Air Miles collectors should have access to all available rewards. He also expressed dismay at the company's rationale that it takes a personalized approach.
"I've been covering the loyalty reward program industry for 15 years," said Sojka in a statement. "This explanation, if accurate, flies in the face of the spirit of the program."
Air Miles admits challenges
Collectors have also complained about not having access to cash rewards, technical difficulties with the Air Miles website, and waiting for at least two hours to speak to customer service by phone.
"Long wait times to speak to an Air Miles customer care specialist is unacceptable," Haffad told CBC News.
She said the company has recruited extra employees to help answer phones. They include workers from other departments — even executives and senior leaders.
Air Miles also says it has a team dedicated to fixing intermittent website issues.