It’s not often that a change in the world of travel rewards makes headlines in the mainstream media, but it’s not that surprising since, unfortunately, almost everyone still thinks that their spending is what will earn them points quickly. That’s obviously not the case, but that doesn’t mean that Empire (Sobeys and other brands) moving from AIR MILES to Scene+ isn’t of interest.
Here are the details… including the 2 potentially very positive aspects of this change, which actually have absolutely nothing to do with the Scene+ program itself.
By the way, the last Empire banners will switch to Scene+ on March 23 (IGA in Québec and Thrifty Foods in British Columbia).
At that moment, Sobeys and all other Empire banners (Safeway, Foodland, Foodland & Participating Co-ops, FreshCo, Chalo! FreshCo, Thrifty Foods, IGA, IGA Extra, Les Marchés Tradition, Rachelle Béry, Lawtons Drugs, Needs Convenience, and the pharmacy and liquor divisions of these banners) and the Voilà by Sobeys grocery delivery service will all use the Scene+ program.
Rewards at Sobeys and grocery stores
We can’t be serious in our mission to help you travel more for less if we don’t start with a very valuable sidenote.
The very best tip for your grocery shopping if you want to maximize your rewards is certainly not Sobeys’ 1 AIR MILES reward mile for every $20 that earns you only an unbelievably terrible ≈ 0.525% back.
No, it’s using the American Express Cobalt Card, which allows you to earn:
- ≈ 7.5% in Aeroplan points (or more; the value of Aeroplan points is literally unlimited)
- 5% in travel credit or cash back (minimum value if you want it simple)
That’s on top of the rewards earned from the grocery store directly, obviously.
This makes it extremely valuable to buy groceries at grocery stores that accept Amex cards. We’re talking about 2X to 7X more valuable, which is pretty substantial!
The card that the vast majority of people use for groceries gives maybe 3%, 2%, or 1%. That’s so much less!
(And let’s not even mention people who throw money out the window by paying with debit, and there are still a lot of them, unfortunately 😬!)
The Amex Cobalt Card really is by far the best tool for earning faster. It’s flat-out the best card overall among the ≈ 200 Canadian cards.
To give a specific example, with just $1200 in grocery store purchases, I earn a reward flight (a short-distance flight, obviously) with Aeroplan or Avios with my Amex Cobalt Card, my favorite of my many cards and the one of the only ones I kept after the 1st year’s welcome bonus.
Even with a card that gives 2%, most people would only get a $24 reward by using a standard card, and by still unfortunately ignoring airline rewards programs that offer much more value.
With only $833 in groceries, I get a free night in several great destinations like Bali, if you prefer hotels. Much better than getting $16 cash back (2%) as most people get, right?
Even if you want a simple travel credit that applies to any travel expense or even cash back, $1000 worth of groceries with the Amex Cobalt Card will give you $50 instead of just $20 or $10. That’s a huge difference!
(If you like simple rewards and shopping at Sobeys, read the section about the most important positive aspect below!)
Not to mention that with the Amex Cobalt Card, you also earn 5X the points on gas, Amazon, clothing, hardware, Netflix, etc., just by buying gift cards at the grocery store (and the 5X points rate also applies to restaurants and food delivery services in addition to grocery stores).
And these 3 examples don’t even take into consideration the current Amex Cobalt Card welcome bonus, which gives you another 2,500 points for every month during which you spend at least 500$ with your card, for 12 months (so the equivalent of ≈ 15% or minimum 10% on 500$ of groceries per month).
That earn rate is simply phenomenal!
The most important thing about rewards
For those who don’t want to switch cards to more than double the free travel they get with the American Express Cobalt Card, it may seem like a big deal that Sobeys is changing from the AIR MILES rewards program to the Scene+ rewards program.
But it doesn’t change much, because it’s obviously not with regular purchases that you earn rewards quickly, but rather with welcome bonuses.
This is the most basic of all basics in the world of travel rewards, but unfortunately, there are still plenty of people who think earning 1 AIR MILES reward mile when spending $20 is going to give them worthwhile rewards.
By comparison, the BMO AIR MILES World Elite MasterCard gives 2,325 miles as a welcome bonus and the American Express AIR MILES Platinum Credit Card gives 2,300 miles (and these are these cards’ worst welcome bonuses ever or almost): welcome bonuses are the key!
I’ll clarify even more since this is literally THE most important thing to understand: you have to spend $46,000 on groceries at Sobeys to collect 2,300 AIR MILES rewards miles the slow and terrible way everyone does it…
Instead, you can just apply for a card and get those same 2,300 miles (unlocking the welcome bonus only requires spending $1,500, which is 30 times less spending for the same rewards)!
If you remember just one thing, it’s that EVERYONE who earns a lot of points does so with welcome bonuses, not with their regular purchases! Always.
The Scene+ program
But hey, even though it’s awfully slow, grocery store rewards are still free rewards. You have to take them too, of course! It’s just that the amount is minimal in the big picture.
Basically, the Scene+ program is better than AIR MILES for many people, because each point is always worth 1¢ for travel; it’s a simple conversion with a round number. We know people like it when it’s simple!
And Scene+ points can be used to erase any travel expense, no matter what it is and no matter which website you book on. At least when you’re a Scotiabank customer (I’ll come back to that below, but you can even be a customer for free with the Scotiabank Scene+ Visa Card with no annual fee, but it gives you just $50 free instead of $300). Or Scene+ points have a fixed value through the Scotia travel portal directly.
It’s very flexible and simple.
(You can use Scene+ points for other things, but like all rewards programs, you get the most value by using them for travel. Here are 3 striking examples. And we’re a site whose mission is to help you travel more for less, so we won’t tell you to waste points on other useless stuff!)
We’ll be prioritizing Scene+ for our next ultimate rewards program guide very soon.
Positive or negative change for earning?
The impact depends on what the earn rate at Sobeys is for you with the Scene+ program; it’s obviously impossible to assess whether or not the change is positive without this information.
That’s another very basic thing that many don’t understand: you absolutely need to know the earn rates to compare rewards amongst each other (and don’t forget that each type of reward has a different value too, so 1 AIR MILES mile ≠ 1 Scene+ point)!
As mentioned, the former earn rate at Sobeys was 1 AIR MILES reward mile per $20.
That was ≈ 0.525% back because most people use AIR MILES the way they’re less valuable, as AIR MILES “Cash” miles, which are worth 10.5¢ per AIR MILES rewards mile (because 95 AIR MILES give $10 off that way).
With the switch, and considering the round 1¢/pt value of Scene+ points, the base earn rate at Sobeys could have:
- dropped to 0%
- dropped slightly to 0.5%
- almost doubled to 1%
You see that whether or not the change is good really depends on this data! It could’ve changed from 100% less than now to ≈ 80% more than now!
Well, with Scene+ the base earn rate is 0 points per dollar. There no longer is a fixed simple earn rate on the amount spent. There are just variable offers and targeted bonuses.
From the start, the Scene+ website about the Sobeys addition said that customers earn points “through weekly flyers and everyday product offers in-store and online,” not on all purchases as was the case before with AIR MILES.
Why did the base earn rate go to 0%? The major national competitor (and the only one — Metro is only in Ontario and Québec) to Empire/Sobeys is Loblaw.
Their PC Optimum program earns 0 points per dollar at the grocery store; you only earn on specific promos and products. That’s exactly what Sobeys is copying.
(Of course, Sobeys also had promos and bonuses on specific products and maybe they’ve become better for you… Again, you’ll have to check that to judge the change to Scene+ as a whole. But since Empire/Sobeys have become co-owners of Scene+, they do have access to more data to customize the offers!)
Finally, the only other major competitor to Empire/Sobeys is Metro. In Ontario, Metro uses AIR MILES and gives the same ≈ 0.525% back Sobeys used to give. In Québec, the metro & moi in-house program essentially gives 0.8% back as a base earn rate.
So it would’ve been great for Sobeys to give 1 point per dollar and almost double the old earn rate up to 1% to beat Metro! But as I said in the initial post about the news, that would’ve been surprising, and they decided not to go in that direction.
To evaluate whether your earn rate went up or down, you’ll have check your accounts. It all depends on how generous the Scene+ offers and bonuses are for you.
If they want to innovate and really differentiate themselves in the market with their rewards program, Scene+ earn rates could be higher than they were with AIR MILES. Making such a big change from AIR MILES to Scene+ by taking a stake in the Scene+ company does show that they see rewards as a major lever!
(And as a disclaimer, the strategic consulting firm I worked for before starting Flytrippers had Empire/Sobeys as a major client. And while I obviously can’t say anything proprietary, I think it’s generic enough to say at least that their management team seemed pretty innovative. But it’s been 7 years too!)
Just the fact that they’re almost bringing the rewards program in-house (not fully, but at least they now own 1/3 of it) allows for slightly larger financial margins than having to give a significant portion of sales to AIR MILES, which is a separate company.
To be continued.
But anyway, I do want to repeat that this is all extremely insignificant in the grand scheme of things in the travel rewards world. Obviously, earning 0.5% or even 1% in rewards at Sobeys won’t make you’ll travel more, but welcome bonuses will.
The most important potentially positive point
Honestly, the most interesting thing about the change announced by Sobeys is that it may finally lead to American Express cards being accepted at all Empire brands (currently, only certain banners accept them, with the most notable gap being in Québec where IGA doesn’t accept Amex cards).
The thing is, the best card to earn Scene+ points, especially on groceries, is the Scotiabank Gold American Express Card. Scotiabank owned 50% of the Scene+ program with Cineplex before this announcement, now it’s 33%.
(Scotiabank is the only bank that issues cards using the American Express network, other than the American Express Bank itself, of course!)
The Scotiabank Gold Amex Card (with a currently increased free welcome bonus of $300) allows you to earn 5% back on groceries. It’s the 2nd best card in Canada for groceries.
But also, since October, it earns 6% only at Empire grocery stores! So it is even better than the Amex Cobalt Card at Empire if you use points for simple travel credits (but not if you use your Amex points for reward flights obviously).
This change proves my point from this section written before I knew about the new 6X earn rate; it just makes no sense that some Empire brands don’t accept that card!
But if nothing changes, the best Scene+ credit card on groceries could not be used in many Scene+ partner grocery stores, mostly in Québec (if many Empire locations continue to not accept Amex cards).
It doesn’t make sense, especially knowing the business model of rewards programs: credit cards are the most valuable and important component. Both for us consumers and for programs. Because banks have all the money!
The Scene+ card that stands out for groceries needs to be accepted in grocery stores that use Scene+ as a rewards program; it just doesn’t make sense otherwise.
So I think it’s very likely that all Empire banners will join others as grocery stores that accept American Express cards.
As I said, this is especially an issue in Québec. A contact who is an IGA franchisee confirmed to me that their payment terminal change in April 2021 means all merchants have the option and technical capabilities to accept Amex cards (which is what caused several franchisees to start accepting them individually on their own at that point despite the chain as a whole not accepting them, including this contact who is a travel rewards enthusiast and wanted to use his Amex Cobalt Card in his own grocery store 😆)!
At least all Sobeys and Safeway locations, Empire’s 2 “full-service” brands, already accept Amex cards themselves.
Funny personal sidenote since I just talked about it, it’s nothing confidential, and it’s related to travel: a meeting about Sobeys’ acquisition of Safeway when I was a consultant happens to be when I took my most expensive flight ever! A nice $2000 roundtrip flight from Québec City to Edmonton. That breaks my heart.
It’s crazy how expensive last-minute flights are, and we always tell you: it’s normal because when you buy a last-minute flight, it’s because you’re in a bind, and airlines will charge a lot for that! It’s a good thing I wasn’t the one paying for it, because $2000 is literally more than the total for 5 of my transcontinental roundtrip flights thanks to the deals we spot: Southeast Asia ($500), China ($500), South Africa ($550), Sweden ($250), and France ($300).
The other potentially positive point
Finally, the other good thing is that Empire/Sobeys’ change may force AIR MILES to improve. Increased competition can do that!
But it can also kill the program and make it disappear completely. One less competitor wouldn’t be so good. Update: the company behind the AIR MILES program will declare bankruptcy and sell the program to BMO.
The AIR MILES program is already pretty terrible frankly, at least since the changes to airline rewards last year. So maybe it will just continue its quiet decline.
By the way, Staples has also announced that they are leaving AIR MILES, so the program doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction, but we’ll keep an eye on it.
The ultimate guide to the AIR MILES program is coming soon too, if you’re still interested.
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Sobeys (just like other Empire banners) has switched from AIR MILES to Scene+, but it’s not really a big deal if you understand how travel rewards work: it’s certainly not with your regular purchases that you’re going to earn many points!
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Featured image: Sobeys Jefferson Square (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)