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DIY, credit card style: Issuers roll out 'do it yourself' cards

New products give consumers some say over their cards' features

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Looking for a do-it-yourself project that doesn't involve repainting a bedroom or landscaping your yard? How about building your own credit card? Credit card issuers roll out 'do it yourself' cards

More companies are rolling out tools on the Internet to give consumers greater control over the features of their cards -- and more could be on the way. While card issuers have dabbled in allowing customers to personalize the design of their cards, new tools go beyond cosmetic features and enable applicants to dictate financial terms such as  annual percentage rates (APRs), annual fees and reward structures.

The idea has been around for a few years. Capital One launched its "Card Lab" in 2007, and advertised it with TV spots such as "War Kittens" and "Spaghetti Jimmy" that touted flexibility. Around the same time, the Turkish bank Garanti began offering its Flexi Card, which it says has 9,000 different financial combinations.

In recent months, banks have ramped up the availability of do-it-yourself cards. Experts say that's because having consumers fashion their own cards taps into major trends in the credit card industry: Rising default rates have highlighted the importance of consumers understanding the terms of the cards they carry, and the Credit CARD Act of 2009 has placed a premium on transparency. Plus, the down economy has contributed to the sense among consumers that they need to exert control over their finances.

"A lot of these things are spawned from a greater awareness by the consumer of what's going on with their credit cards, as well as much greater awareness on part of issuers that they need more transparency," says industry consultant James Walsh, president of Brookwood Capital in Peterborough, N.H. "Usually these things are easy to understand. If you understand it, you can pick a card that's going to, for instance, not get you into trouble."

Usually these things are easy to understand. If you understand it, you can pick a card that's going to, for instance, not get you into trouble.

-- James Walsh    
Industry consultant    

New Discover, AmEx offerings
In February, Discover unveiled CardBuilder, a site that allows consumers to develop a card by stating how they plan to use it, what kind of rewards they'd like and then toggling switches to control the card's APR and introductory offers. In December, American Express began offering its Zync card, which is aimed at young customers and offers them a choice of four "packs" with separate reward structures based on their preferences. The company plans to expand the number of packs later this year. And late in 2009, Citi sent an offer to some existing cardholders, letting them pick among 15 combinations of APRs and fees for balance transfers.

Although Capital One decommissioned Card Lab in late 2009, the company says it plans to bring it back this year with new tools that give customers greater flexibility. Asked why the company disabled Card Lab, spokeswoman Pam Girardo said in an e-mail: "Capital One's Card Lab is being retooled while we focus on developing other options for enabling choice and control for our customers." Customers are still able to put their own images on cards, she said.

In addition to allowing consumers to customize their cards when they're created, some issuers are offering more flexibility on how they pay their bills. In September 2009, Chase introduced Chase Blueprint, a set of features that allows customers to see their spending by category and set their own monthly payment amounts, or pay off portions of their bill and carry a balance on others. Blueprint is available at no charge on certain Chase cards.

Allowing nonstandard card offers
Card issuers and experts say the do-it-yourself trend is a boon for consumers. It allows them to create a card that suits their needs and wouldn't otherwise be available.

Think of it like buying a shirt. The department store at the mall might stock only the color and size most people are willing to buy -- say, a black shirt in medium and large. But if you go to the retailer's website, you'll likely have a selection of a dozen colors and sizes from extra-small to extra-extra-large.

With Discover's CardBuilder, consumers don't have to settle for an offer that's aimed at an average customer, says Anas Osman, the company's vice president of acquisition.

"Before, we'd make an average offer to the widest audience," he says. "This allows us to put many more permutations of offers. The customer can personalize the offer to suit them."

Trade-offs necessary
Of course, any do-it-yourself project is only as good as the materials and tools you have to work with. And with credit cards, those come from the card issuers, who control the parameters in which customers select the financial terms of their cards. Consumers must make trade-offs to develop a card that suits their priorities.

For instance, with CardBuilder, for consumers who say they have average credit and sometimes carry a balance, the APR on purchases on a 5 percent Cashback Bonus card can range between 13 percent and 23 percent. Choose the high range, and the zero-percent introductory offer lasts longer and the balance transfer terms are better than if you choose the low range.

At American Express, Zync is a charge card, and applicants select a "pack" that suits their lifestyle. For instance, people who dine out a lot might opt for the "Social Pack," which earns double reward points on restaurant and event purchases and offers special access to event tickets before they go on sale to the public. A frequent traveler might sign up for the pack that doubles rewards on plane tickets and offers discounts on rental cars.

Most card issuers have some kind of basic screening that steers customers toward the different cards they offer, but these newer products allow greater customization.

On Internet discussion forums where consumers spread information about good deals, such as FlyerTalk.com and FatWallet.com, no do-it-yourself credit card has been strongly recommended as a must-have. Some people who said they had looked at the offers opined that while the cards might make sense for certain people, the terms did not seem that different from what is already available.

What DIY cards offer companies
For card issuers, one appeal of build-it-yourself cards is the opportunity to engage with customers. Marketing experts say that interaction can kick off a positive relationship and perhaps lead to more customer loyalty.

Zync customers, for instance, can access a closed forum, where they can exchange ideas and offer suggestions to American Express as it expands the program.

"This demographic wants to be more engaged and have more input," says American Express spokeswoman Mona Hamouly. "They want to feel it's a two-way conversation. We're partnering with them."

Studies have shown that interacting with customers before asking them to make a decision leads to a higher level of trust, says Ron Shevlin, a financial services analyst with Aite Group, a research and advisory firm.

It's starting the relationship off on a better foot than it often does. If a consumer says, 'Yes, this helped me make a smart decision,' it's good for the issuer and the consumer.

-- Ron Shevlin
Analyst, Aite Group

In addition, with the proliferation of so many different kinds of cards in the past few years, tools that guide potential customers help relieve the burden of choosing.

"It's starting the relationship off on a better foot than it often does," Shevlin says. "If a consumer says, 'Yes, this helped me make a smart decision,' it's good for the issuer and the consumer."

He says he expects the segment to grow. Outside companies could even start developing interactive sites that guide customers to credit cards from different banks, much as the site FindABetterBank.com has done for checking accounts, he says.

Still, do-it-yourself cards remain a small part of the industry. Discover and American Express are relying mostly on word-of-mouth and for now are forgoing expensive ad campaigns for those cards.

That lack of a big ad campaign is probably because the cards are geared more toward people who seek cards online, who are a different kind of consumer than those who respond to direct mail and TV ads. It's also hard to conceive of a catchy pitch that directs potential customers to go online and pick a card with an interest rate between 9.99 and 19.99 percent, says Andrew Davidson, senior vice president of Mintel Comperemedia, a market research firm.

"It's a great marketing tool, but part of the overall mix," he says. "The Web is an important channel, and this is a way of standing out from the clutter."

DO IT YOUSELF CREDIT CARDS: 2 EXAMPLES
A small but growing number of credit cards are being offered that let consumers adjust some aspects of their own terms and conditions. Here are the examples from two of America's largest card issuers.
Card What it is
What it costs
American Express Zync
Charge card oriented toward 20- and 30-somethings that offers four different lifestyle "packs" with different reward accumulation and redemption. Packs are Social (dining out), Go (travel), Connect (mobile and cable) and Eco (environment-oriented). More packs and features expected this year. $25 annual fee, plus $20 per year for Social, Go and Connect packs.
Discover CardBuilder Platform for selecting Discover card. Allows you to choose among types of reward accumulation and redemption, card design, and financial features such as APRs on purchases, balance transfers and introductory offers. No annual fee
Sources: Interviews and review of company offers in March 2010. To report corrections or updates, contact Editors@CreditCards.com.
See related: Card customization: Does Spaghetti Jimmy really win, Glossary of common credit card terms, AmEx's Zync card targets charge-happy youth

Published: April 7, 2010


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