Merchant Codes Exposed: Why You Didn't Get Your Credit Card Rewards

May 26, 2017 | 3 Comments

Have you ever made a purchase on your credit card hoping to earn rewards, but when you look at your statement, you didn't receive anything? If you've ever bought something with the expectation of earning credit card rewards but didn't, find out what happened and how you can earn those rewards points for future purchases.

Photo: Flickr | https://www.flickr.com/photos/wlscience/4464666197/in/photolist-pWvuiE-rch3ZC-aCatRR-2bP6j4-9HULRk-cyf7J9-ftcnL7-oHznqG-4bZ7YW-7NxBex-qjmx9v-fJMCwG-7pLjv9-5wY6pF-7NwzHp-ohBKf7-5cqQ4S-fJv5M4-6pt2xF-bTQYji-jGkcKs-nEJpXf-bP9P1H-e7KouK-7xSgBW-gTN3P-6YVagV-fsVJJe-6uXb5X-ftb6Vh-5oKUhu-ftb7aY-fsVJNz-91ddV8-ftb643-4wQn2x-aDy8kP-fsVKsR-ncrNBW-8cwu6o-ftb72h-7m6Poz-fsVJXP-aRtjSp-hcJ1YD-b2StCD-b4qNut-5Xck8X-bCohT7-q1ZaR9
Learn to find the stores that let you maximize your rewards credit card. Photo: Flickr

Walking into the local Walmart and equipped with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express card, you expect to earn 3% cash back on the groceries purchased up to $6,000 per year (1% thereafter). Lo and behold, when you check your cash back balance at the end of the month, you notice that the Walmart purchase only gave you 1% cash back.

If it was me, I’d certainly be upset about the missing 5% cash back earnings. Just to give you an idea, the average American household spent $3,977 on “food at home” in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means the missing 5% cash back equates to $200 cash back, assuming that “food at home” means groceries.

Why didn't you receive the full 6% cash back from Walmart? It's quite simple -- your credit card doesn't recognize Walmart as a “grocery store,” even though it sells groceries. The reason for the discrepancy lies in the the way that your credit card company categorizes a particular store. It’s a common predicament when your credit card purchases aren’t categorized in a way that you anticipated.

Today, I delve into the technical side of how your credit card earns bonus rewards and how you can ensure that you get the most rewards out of your credit cards.

Merchant category codes: When grocery stores aren’t grocery stores

Each merchant location (e.g., retailer, restaurant, online website, etc.) that accepts card payments through a card payment network -- American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa -- has its own merchant category code (MCC), which could be different from network to network.

For instance, a store that sells books could be categorized as a “bookstore” by Visa while it is considered a “school supply” store by Discover.

Furthermore, if a store was part of a chain of stores, one location may be categorized differently than another.

Here’s a great example: For Visa, regular Walmart stores have an MCC of while Walmart Supercenter stores have an MCC of .

Wal-mart stores can be listed as drug stores, discount stores or supermarkets.
Wal-mart stores can be listed as drug stores, discount stores or supermarkets.

Again, if American Express used the same MCCs for Walmart stores, you’d earn 1% cash back at Walmart while you’d earn 3% cash back at Walmart Supercenter (assuming you are a cardmember of Blue Cash Preferred® Credit Card from American Express).

Knowing a store’s MCC before you make a purchase would prevent you from feeling cheated when you don’t earn as many rewards as you expected.

Credit card companies know that there would be times when card customers don’t get the rewards that they expected. Just look at the fine print that Chase, for example, uses to clarify its rewards policy:

“Please note we make every effort to include all relevant merchant codes in our rewards categories. However, even though a merchant or some of the items that it sells may appear to fit within a rewards category, the merchant may not have a merchant code in that category. When this occurs, purchases with that merchant won’t qualify for rewards offers on purchases in that category.”

For instance, it’s not the credit card company’s problem if you bought cough medicine at Pathmark and didn't get bonus rewards because Pathmark is considered a grocery store, not a drug store. It can get worse when merchants have different MCCs -- just look at some examples of major U.S. merchants that have different MCCs based on their locations and what each location sells:

Popular brands and possible MCCs

Merchant Possible MCCs
7-Eleven Gas station, convenience store or grocery store
Walmart Discount store, grocery store or drug store
Office Depot Office supply store or general merchandise store
Barnes & Noble Book store or restaurant
Sheraton Hotels Hotel/motels or restaurant

So now, let’s move on to my tips that would help you earn the rewards that you deserve.

How to never miss out on rewards

These are the three ways that you can check a merchant’s MCC:

1. Use Visa’s supplier locator tool.

Of the four major U.S. card payment networks, Visa is the only one that has a public directory of its partnered merchants and their respective MCCs. It is very likely that the merchant categorization is similar for American Express, Discover and MasterCard.

There are two ways that I can use the free, public Visa supplier locator tool to my advantage.

The Visa supplier locator tool finds nearby merchants that have a certain MCC.
The Visa supplier locator tool finds nearby merchants that have a certain MCC.

Firstly, I can find a specific merchant by name and address. If I'm unsure of a merchant's MCC, I can look it up through this this tool. If a store won’t let me earn bonus rewards, I’ll know to look elsewhere for one that does.

Secondly, I can just choose to find all the merchants nearby that have a certain MCC. Use the tool to identify the neighborhood merchants that fall under my credit cards’ rewards categories. I might discover some merchants that I didn’t think would provide bonus rewards (like when GNC, a retailer of health and nutrition products, is categorized as "convenience stores").

Tip: Remember that you earn bonus rewards based on where you buy something -- it doesn’t matter what you buy. So, the Amazon gift cards that you buy at the supermarket will still allow you to earn 3% cash back through Blue Cash Preferred® Credit Card from American Express. This is one of my favorite credit card hacks.
2. Do a small test purchase first.

While the Visa supplier locator tool is a great way to see the MCC for a particular merchant, I often don’t know for sure until I see the transaction information show up in my account activity. Therein lies the next way to check a merchant’s MCC, which is especially useful since the other three card payment networks don’t have a public MCC database.

Before I make a big purchase or make regular visits to a particular merchant, it doesn’t hurt to make a small purchase to test the waters. Then, I log into my online account to see the exact category of the merchant.

Below you can see how American Express shows this information on my Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express account:

American Express shows very detailed information on there merchant's information, including address and MCC.
American Express shows very detailed information on there merchant's information, including address and MCC.

Here’s how Citi shows it for my Citi® Dividend Platinum Select® Visa® Card:

Citi automatically has a column that states the transaction category.
Citi automatically has a column that states the transaction category.

I think Chase does the best job of displaying which purchase earn bonus rewards and which do not (this my Chase Freedom® card):

Chase makes it easy to see how many points you earned for each purchase.
Chase makes it easy to see how many points you earned for each purchase.

Once I’ve confirmed the merchant’s category, I can go ahead to make bigger purchases at the merchant with confidence that I’ll earn bonus rewards.

3. Ask someone.

When I don’t have the luxury for employing the two tips mentioned above, I just ask the cashier or a manager. I’ve done it once out of curiosity at a 7-Eleven gas station while I was inside the convenience store. The cashier told me that card transactions were considered gas purchases. My purchase was recorded under the “gas station” category, not “convenience store.”

Conclusion

Now that you understand how credit card purchases are categorized by your credit card issuer, you can use this knowledge to not only earn the bonus rewards that you deserve, but to also find new ways to earn bonus rewards. I'd love to hear how you used the above tips to rack up more rewards -- share them in the comments below.

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kruskalsalgorithm
Tuesday, 11 Apr 2017 3:31 AM
<p>Thanks. Yes, although in my case I had to wait until the final Rewards statement to see whether the test purchase was actually credited. By "online tool" I meant the Amex credit card transaction history itself, not a locator tool. After calling in angrily when my huge Soylent purchase (labeled identically to a Cub's grocery purchase as Grocery), they explained even the label on my purchase in my transaction history indicated the supplier's "overall" category, but the item I bought from the supplier itself was ineligible for cashback because the item was registered under a different sub-code (showed up as "Other" only on the 3-month final paid cashback report PDF, not the transaction history or unpaid statement).</p><p>This shows that even test purchases can be misleading with Amex because you'll only know months later on your next statement whether it was actually rewarded. Despite 2 items having literally letter-for-letter identical "categories" in my statement and transaction history ("Purchases: Retail: Grocery"), only one turned out to be eligible. I lost a lot of money, and arguing with them didn't help ("it's a secret item-specific code known only to us; we have full discretion whether to credit").</p><p>But to their credit, they say the merchant category posted in your transaction history/statement is "usually" a good guide as to whether it will count for rewards in that specific category.</p><p>Moral: don't buy Soylent on Amex, even if it's listed as "Grocery" like your Cub's purchases. You won't get a lick over 1%, and that missing 5% is down the drain. :)</p>
MyBankTracker
Monday, 10 Apr 2017 3:46 AM
<p>Very interesting. The Visa supplier locator tool definitely isn't a guarantee and the best method to verify the rewards category is to make a test purchase.</p>
kruskalsalgorithm
Friday, 10 Feb 2017 8:40 PM
<p>I have to make a comment about the Amex point above -- amex does two-layer coding. The item itself is also factored into the equation.</p><p>For instance, both Cub Foods and Soylent receive the exact same category string in the Transactions Detail pane, and my spending pie chart reports 100% groceries. However, I only get the cashback bonus from Cub Food's and not the Soylent.</p><p>I called to clarify. They told me there are two factors in play, and that the terms and conditions mention this, and that the site should only be used as a guide and not the final word. Sure enough, when I got my statement credit the following cycle, I only got 1% from the Soylent, despite it registering identically in the Transaction Details tab.</p><p>So to clarify: Amex lists the "Umbrella" Merchant ID in the Transaction Details pane. Indeed, Soylent is registered as a Grocery Store with Amex. However, any purchases made (the actual Soylent products) appear as unclassified goods purchased through Soylent, the same way a gift card would be if you bought it from Cub's. Amex told me Soylent needs to call to update the particular subcode used for the items themselves or else they'll continue to be treated as "Other" when it actually comes down to cashback time.</p><p>It was easy for me to detect this because I only use my Blue Cash Preferred in two places -- Cub's and Soylent (subscription). And exactly the sum total of the Soylent is not awarded the cashback despite 100% of my purchases being flagged with the identical Category string "Groceries" in the Transaction Details tab of the website.</p>