An MS fail: time wasted with the Staples and Lowe’s offers

We maintain a Manufactured Spending Complete Guide and periodically publish an update on “what still works” (which is due for an update), so I dabble in the various methods to keep things up-to-date. This weekend, I got a reminder that things can and will go wrong sometimes, resulting in a loss of time, money, points, or all of the above. Fortunately, the only thing I lost was time — but it felt like a failure in terms of the time spent for a small gain, and it was a good reminder of the types of things that can go wrong and derail your day.

Generous Amex Offer for Staples & Lowe’s

Staples Amex Offer

Last month, Stephen reported on generous Amex Offers that were targeted on Amex business cards: 10% back at Staples, Lowe’s, and several other merchants (See: New 10% Amex Offers: Staples, Lowe’s, Exxon Mobil & Dell (Business Cards Only)). An interesting thing about those offers is that neither the Staples nor Lowe’s offers excluded physical gift cards in-store. The Lowe’s offer excluded electronic gift cards. The Staples offer excluded gift cards “in bulk purchases”, but it is my understanding that this refers to a bulk purchasing program for business customers (like perhaps a business that wanted to sell Staples gift cards and get a small discount on a large quantity). I wouldn’t expect four or five gift cards to constitute a bulk purchase. The moral of the story is that gift cards seemed to be in play with both retailers in-store.

While those offers have been out for a month, I just got a chance to try to put them to use this weekend.

Going all-in at once

One of the key things to learn when getting started with MS is to take it slow. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor do you need to clear a store out of gift cards in one shot.

That said, I’ve mentioned before the fact that I live in the middle of nowhere. Some people claim to live in the middle of nowhere, yet they live in a small city of 30-40K people. By contrast, my town has a population of about 1,000 people (and probably 3,000 cows). You can’t see another house from where I live, but you could have seen a bear on my lawn a couple of weekends ago. Any given day, deer, turkeys, rabbits, and various furry forms of life are a regular sighting. Home is rural, which certainly has its advantages. On the other hand, it unfortunately means that the closest Staples is about 70 miles away. There’s a Lowe’s about 30 miles away — but as you can imagine, I’m not passing either store regularly.

However, over the weekend, I was in a larger area with several Staples and Lowe’s locations and I had a few hours of unplanned free time. I decided that I would make a loop and purchase some gift cards. Since I don’t get the chance to do this every day, I figured I’d go ahead and max out the offer on a couple of my cards. That was mistake #1.

Declined at the first stop

As the offer is good for 10% back up to a total of $100 in statement credits (i.e. 10% back on up to $1,000 in purchases), I attempted to buy $1,000 in gift cards at the first stop. While I have purchased gift cards before with the Amex card I tried to use, I hadn’t used it much in the past few months. The payment terminal came up with a message asking for a different payment method. I didn’t think that running it a second time would help, so I tried a different card. The purchase went through.

As I went out to my car, I got a call from Amex looking to verify the first attempted charge. I verified that it was me and they told me that I could now try the charge again. I explained that I’d already used a different card but that I would be using this card again later if it would work. The agent said it would.

Declined at the second stop

My second stop was at a Lowe’s, where I brought $1,000 in gift cards to the register. After ringing them up, I put in the card that had been declined at Stop #1…and it got declined again. Trying to use that card again was mistake #2. There was nobody behind me in line (and a few empty cashiers), so I asked the cashier to give me a second to get this resolved with Amex. Sure enough, they called within a minute.

The agent I spoke with seemed to have some trouble re-activating my card initially, but he got it figured out and I was able to successfully make the purchase while I had him on the phone. I hung up after the payment terminal said “approved”.

And then the cashier made a confused sound as she squinted at the screen. She re-scanned one of the gift cards and still got an error message: one of the gift cards failed to active. The cashier told me that I had to bring the card and receipts to customer service and they could help me.

I explained the situation to the customer service rep (we’ll call her “Cheryl”), who thankfully seemed to understand what was going on even if she didn’t have any idea how to fix it: I had paid $1,000, but only had $800 in activated gift cards since once card failed to activate. She scanned a couple of things to no avail, so she called Lowe’s IT support. I could only hear one side of that conversation, but I could tell that the tech had told her to try to refund that item number. Cheryl (the Lowe’s in-store rep) explained that I had purchased 5 of the same item number, so she wouldn’t know which one got refunded if she did that. This came back up again later, and I’m extremely thankful that I was dealing with a rep who thought that through rather than just doing what the IT person on the phone told her to do. Essentially, IT was saying to just refund one of item #XXXX — but the problem with that was that she might have invalidated a second card if she did that, leaving me with $600 in good cards. Eventually, IT concluded with her that since I had made the purchase mere minutes ago (it didn’t exactly feel that way between the time I spent waiting in the customer service line and the time that Cheryl had been working on this, but whatever), it wasn’t yet showing up in the computer system for someone in IT to be able to get a more detailed look at it. I was told I would need to come back in 30 minutes.

I didn’t love that idea for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was wondering whether or not I would deal with the same person a second time. However, Cheryl had the foresight to get a ticket number from the IT department and she photocopied my receipt and stapled it to the ticket number and left it at the register. Luckily, there was a Walmart next door where I could kill some time waiting in line in the interim.

Lucky for a good customer service rep

I returned to Lowe’s ~30 minutes later and of course Cheryl wasn’t standing there. The rep I got was new, so she called over a manager, who similarly had no idea what to do. The manager said we should call Cheryl, and I was thankful for that.

So Cheryl comes back and scans the receipt again and gets the same result that isn’t allowing her to do what she needs to do. I think the problem was that she was unable to refund the failed gift card since the system was (accurately) showing that the gift card hadn’t been activated. That kind of makes sense — if I pulled a card off the rack and brought it to customer service without paying for it, the computer wouldn’t let them give me money back. The electrical signal between the synapses of Lowe’s internal IT wasn’t putting together the fact that I was charged for this card even though it wasn’t active.

She called IT and once again IT told her to just refund the item number…and once again, she explained that I had 5 of the same item number and that technique wouldn’t work since she wouldn’t know which one got refunded — she needed to specifically refund the right one. I again found myself thankful that Cheryl was an independent thinker. I could imagine another rep just doing what the IT line told them to do, causing even more trouble. The idea of just refunding the whole transaction was floated for a moment. While I’d rather do that than lose $200, I didn’t want to try my twice-declined card a third time for a large purchase.

Eventually, she told me to grab another card while she was on the phone. By the time I got back to the register, she had figured it out and refunded me for the gift card that didn’t activate. I would need to purchase that last card anew. I used a different Amex card on that purchase — which is exactly what I didn’t want to do from the beginning in order to stay organized (now I need to remember that I’ve only spent $200 at Lowe’s on that card, yet I’ve spent $X at Staples, etc). Oh well — I walked out with the cards. Before I walked out, I opened them and called the number on the back to verify balances, and all was correct.

I drove to one more Staples location and tried to make a single gift card purchase (mixed with something else I needed to buy). My card got declined again…at which point, I admitted defeat and used my Ink Plus, hoping I’ll live to fight another day with this one.

Lessons learned

Unfortunately, that whole process took a lot longer in real life than the written version. In total, I went to 1 Lowe’s store, 2 Staples locations, and two Walmarts and I ended up with just $2,200 in gift cards (only $2K of which had been on Amex cards). I spent about an hour in the car from place to place and an additional 2.5+ hours between declined transactions, waiting in line, and the inactive card. That didn’t feel nearly as productive as I’d hoped when I began plotting out a route that morning.

But I “learned” a few things (in quotes because these are really things we should already know):

  1. Go slow. Had I just bought a couple hundred bucks at each place, I probably would have made it to a few more stores with a lot less headache.
  2. If at first you don’t succeed, maybe don’t try try again. I should have just given Card #1 a rest after the first declined transaction.
  3. Pay attention to what the cashier is doing. Had the customer service rep at Lowe’s simply refunded a random gift card as IT was telling her to and had I not been paying attention, I might have walked out with an even bigger headache than wasted time.

And really, the biggest reminder I got out of this was that this is a slow grind to earning points if you can’t scale it up, and I obviously failed to do that this time around. Last weekend, I sold this grill:

I earned more points when I purchased it than I did on gift card purchases this weekend and I resold it for a greater profit. I did have to drive about 2.5 hours round trip to drop it off, but the juice was worth the squeeze in terms of profit (the points were just gravy). I don’t do as much reselling these days as I used to due to time constraints, but I continue to dabble — and it often reminds me that while merchandise has its own set of risks and headaches, it has advantages in terms of profit, reduced bank attention, and reduced time spent staring into space waiting on line.

I’ll keep dabbling in various forms of MS. I’ve done it enough to know that while momma said there’d be days like this, there are both better and worse days to come as well. While this trip around was kind of frustrating and slow and it felt like a failure in terms of the return for my time, the thrill of the hunt for more points will likely lure me back another day.

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

More articles by Nick Reyes »

36
Leave a Reply

avatar
14 Comment threads
22 Thread replies
13 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
22 Comment authors
RyeAbyCaveDwellerVicGlenn Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of
Ask
Guest
Ask

Lowe’s has very strict hard coded velocity limits. If u hit them the cards just won’t activate.

Rye
Guest
Rye

What is the velocity limit? And how long till it clears?

Buddy In Florida
Guest
Buddy In Florida

Last weekend I attempted to purchase $1000 in VGC at Staples.
My AMX was initially declined and I then tried to swipe it which also was declined. Cashier then asked me to insert card backwards which I did and this caused the machine to request a swipe. I swiped and the cashier did something to make the transaction work.
Received standard email about qualifying for AMX offer.
A few days later AMX offer had not posted and a quick chat solved that problem.

Sergey
Guest
Sergey

I am thinking if this is what I need to do – Two weeks ago I purchased 3x$300 VGC and 1x$50 Uber Gc online. Received a message about qualifying Amex offer. Charge for uber gc posted first and I got $5 credit. Charges for VGC posted a week or so later, and since June 20 there is no credit for these transactions. Should I chat with Amex? I don’t want really to bring attention to the purchases.

docntx
Guest
docntx

I don’t know if this is relevant, but, this past weekend, I had “regular” transactions at the pump rejected on my AMEX Everyday Preferred with the text message and email verifications, and it eventually worked at another location. Curiously, it happened during a weekend road trip to Galveston (I live in a similar rural area South of Dallas), and I have had similar rejections during 200-400 mile road trips, while none in Thailand, Russia or Mexico.
And, Lowe’s IT is notoriously sluggish around here.
My point… Might it be more error than a preconceived issue?

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

I think “MS inconvenience” is more appropriate than an MS” Fail”

Happy Camper
Guest
Happy Camper

I haven’t tried the Lowe’s GC yet. I guess I’ll have to hop on that. However, at Staples I was able to break it down into several smaller purchases with each of three Amex’s. It worked without any issues – except I learned that ONE of the cards was only “2x points” rather than 10% off, which kinda stunk.

iahphx
Guest
iahphx

Any reason not to do the AMEX Staples offer online? Buy 3 $300 Visas for $927? I just ordered mine this weekend and immediately got the “thank you for using your offer” email from AMEX. If it works, and it seems like it will, that’s good profit for very modest effort.

fll
Guest
fll

It works but you should space your orders so to avoid the issue of not receiving some orders but there is no way to identify WHICH order(s) have not been received.
The offer is good till 11/30, in theory. My practice is to do one offer at a time. Only place a second order after the previous order’s GCs are received – because GCM can send the activation code before the cards – On one order the activation code arrived 5 days before the cards arrived. If it is the opposite, it is easy to resolve but if you dont have the physical cards, but the activation codes, you be worried a bit because over the phone activation is extremely easy – i,e, anyone who got your mail containing the cards, could activate those over the phone!

Ben
Guest
Ben

I’ve bought $927 of VGCs from Staples.com in 2 transactions with no problems. (bought 1 card @$309 to make sure it works, then bought 2 cards @ $618 to max it out). The typical “Great News!” email never comes from Amex, but the 10% credits have been applied to my account with no problem. I’ve received and activated all cards, no issues.

Alex
Guest
Alex

Hi all, How do you all use these gift cards? I have a few Visa (simon cards) that haven’t been able to unload anymore now that Bluebird is gone. I appreciate feedback to help me to get rid of them. I use my credicard (Chase and AmEX) for all my purchases. Is there anything like Bluebird that I can use?

Justin
Guest
Justin

There are still a lot of GC buyers out there post TPM falling.

Teo
Guest
Teo

This happened to me twice with 3 out of 10 cards not activating. The first time, customer service desk was able to figure how to give me a refund. The second time I was able to convince the cashier, after she called the supervisor over, to scan new Amazon GCs when the screen prompted to do so (instead of trying to rescan random cards from the pile) and it worked. The POS system has a prompt that clearly says something like “card ending XXXX failed please scan a new card”.

Rye
Guest
Rye

Of course it had to happen to me too after this article came out.

I’ve had no issues on my 4 previous trips. But, earlier today after payment it prompted for a rescan on 3 cards, but eventually it stopped and only 3 activation receipts came out, I purchased 5.

Head cashier knew how to refund me.

Justin
Guest
Justin

Yea Lowes has velocity limits hard coded. Just use the Check Spending Power in the Amex app. Never had an issue if I pre-clear transactions.

Rye
Guest
Rye

velocity limit? The transaction was approved, but the last 2 times I have gone, 2 or 3 cards don’t activate.

Card was refunded at CS desk, we attempt 2 more purchases and and it was approved, but activation failed.

Glenn
Guest
Glenn

Given that you’re writing for this site, perhaps jumping on an offer more than a month after most people isn’t the best plan? A lot of this information has been discussed in public for some time.

Vic
Guest
Vic

1,000 people vs 3,000 cows lol

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

The Smell when they turn the fields and airport travel time too.

CHEERs

Aby
Guest
Aby

I was able to buy Southwest Gift Cards or Amazon Gift Cards at Staples previously with Staples Gift Cards but as of last week – their systems are not accepting Staples GC (in store) for payment when there are these or any 3rd party gift cards

Rye
Guest
Rye

Has anyone figured out what causes the failed activation? I have gone 2 or 3 times and 2 or 3 VGCs failed to activate