I have an American Express card for one reason only, so I can buy gas at Costco. Okay, sure, sometimes I actually go into Costco and grab a sack of basmati rice and a case of Pellegrino, but on the whole the card stays firmly wedged in a dusty corner of my wallet. Still, when Small Business Saturday rolls around, I give the Amex a bit of exercise. The deal is, if cardholders buy at least twenty-five bucks worth of stuff from a participating small business, Amex will give them twenty-five bucks back. Effectively, this means free stuff for anyone with an Amex, provided they can afford to wait a statement or two for a refund. American Express even provides a handy online map which shows the locations of participating small businesses.
At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
The trouble began when my wife and I tried to find Mysterious Galaxy, our bookstore of choice, on the map. It simply wasn’t listed. Since I’d received an email from the store reminding me about the event, I felt confident that they were, in fact, participating. My wife, who is a librarian and can never leave a question unanswered, kept digging. Eventually, she found a listing for their Redondo Beach store, but it only became apparent when she zoomed the map in on its location. It seemed to be invisible to the map’s search function. The San Diego store never appeared at all, even with the map in hover mode.
Strangely, several other participating businesses in the same mini-mall were perfectly visible, including Game Empire, and the sushi restaurant Niban. We decided to make an evening of it.
We know some people who are very into boardgames, and though we don’t shop there regularly, Game Empire is fast becoming a necessary stop at holiday time. We went there first. Now, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s Christmas surprise, but suffice it to say that we selected a couple games for certain people. But when we brought them up to the counter, we got a holiday surprise of our own.
It seems Game Empire, like all those exotic merchants in the Visa commercials, doesn’t take American Express. They never have. And, according to the gentleman we talked to, they never will. The transaction fee that Amex charges businesses is just too high, apparently. Which begs the question: Why was Game Empire on the American Express map? Yes, it’s a small business, but it certainly wasn’t participating in the Amex offer.
According to the proprietor, we weren’t the first people to wander into Game Empire that day expecting to use our Amex cards. Most of them had wandered right back out again once they discovered there was no chance of getting cash back. The owner suspected that his store had been placed on the map deliberately, as a sort of message. “See, look at all these customers you’re not getting because you don’t take American Express.” A far cry from sending someone around to bust up his display cases, but in roughly the same spirit.
Now, I’m not a big conspiracy theorist. I try not to attribute to malice anything that can be explained by simple incompetence. The errors on the Amex map were probably just that, errors. But let’s look at the overall effect of these errors. Taken together, the mistakes in the map tend to send cardholders away from businesses that are sincerely participating in the Amex offer, like Mysterious Galaxy, and toward business that don’t even take American Express, like Game Empire. Of course, I’m generalizing from a very small sample, but you can see how American Express might benefit from this behavior. And I’d bet there are any number of similar ‘mistakes’ elsewhere on the map.
So how did my particular Small Business Saturday turn out? We actually did buy some things from Game Empire, though not as much as we would have had the Amex offer been valid. Afterward, I wandered around Mysterious Galaxy feeling preoccupied. I picked up and put down Boneshaker by Cherie Priest five or six times. In the end, I utterly failed to buy anything there, despite the lure of free books. We finished with dinner at Niban, though we double-checked whether they accepted American Express before we ordered. They did.