November 18, 2011, 4:38 PM

Southwest Airlines rewards customers for online shopping

A new loyalty program gives frequent fliers points they can use to purchase airline tickets.

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In time for the holiday shopping season, Southwest Airlines is giving its most loyal customers a double whammy of deals starting this week through its newly launched Rapid Rewards Shopping program with Cartera Commerce Inc. that rewards its frequent fliers for online shopping. This marks the first time that Southwest, one of the country’s biggest airlines, is offering rewards for shopping at online retailers.

Similar to its competitors, Southwest now has a sort of online mall where shoppers can sign in with their Southwest Rapid Rewards login information and shop with around 700 online retailers. Consumers will receive discounts off products and also be rewarded with loyalty points they can use toward the purchase of airline tickets.

The program aims to take advantage of the high traffic numbers on Southwest.com, says a spokeswoman for the airline. Unlike other airlines, Southwest does not allow consumers to purchase flights on ticket aggregator sites like Orbitz.com or Expedia.com. “Our web site is extremely popular because shoppers can only book a flight on Southwest, so we get tons of traffic to our site,” the spokeswoman says.

Southwest.com averages about 12.7 million monthly unique visitors, while Delta.com has 7.7 million and AA.com has 6.3 million, according to web analytics provider Compete Inc.

Other top airlines including American, Delta and United have similar programs that reward their loyalty program members for shopping with online retailers. But the Southwest program only rewards frequent flyers for online shopping, while American Airlines and United Airlines, also supply credit cards through Citibank and Chase Bank that accumulate points for purchases at stores, online and offline. This could change for Southwest, however. “We are definitely looking to evolve the program in the next year or so,” the spokeswoman says.

Each retailer’s offer in Southwest’s program varies, ranging from a half a point up to 20 points for every $1 spent.  For example, Sears Holdings Corp., No. 7 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide, is offering Rapid Rewards shoppers $5 off a purchase of $50 or more, plus shoppers will receive three Rapid Reward points for every dollar spent. Best Buy Co. (No. 11) is offering one point for every dollar and Nordstrom Inc. (No. 34) is giving four.

“The opportunity for people to get great value is pretty significant,” says Sarah Arvin, vice president of loyalty programs at Cartera. “If a member spends $1,000 on their holiday shopping, they could easily earn enough to get a one-way Southwest fare for free.”

Shoppers can search the new site by online store, by product or by category as they would  other marketplace-type e-commerce sites. Shoppers can also compare prices among participating retailers  and filter their product searches by category, brand and price. Once a shopper clicks on a product or online retailer, she will be directed to that retailer’s site. When she checks out, Cartera automatically adds the appropriate number of Rapid Rewards points to her Southwest account and the retailer pays Cartera an affiliate fee that varies depending on the arrangement with the retailer.

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