Helpless. For years>, that s how consumers have felt when it came to control over their credit cards. No matter how good your credit or spending history, your rates could be hiked or limits cut at a bank s whim, as long as it sent you the required 15-day advance notice.
The new credit-card law, taking effect this month, will curb these practices to some extent. Interest-rate increases will only apply to future purchases, for example, while a clause requiring banks to give 45-day notice of term changes is already in effect.
How are issuers adjusting? Coincidentally or not, by rolling out services that look like they are giving customers control over their credit cards.
Discover Financial Services last week launched a tool that allows consumers to apply for a credit card that they have customized to their own needs. With the CardBuilder, consumers can select their rewards program, design the face of their card and, most importantly, set their own interest rate and low-APR promotional terms.
Citigroup has been offering customizable balance-transfer promotions to some card holders since October, allowing them to select their own interest rate and promotional period. And late last year, American Express launched a beta version of Zync, a charge card targeting people in their 20s that can be customized with different rewards and benefits packs based on the card holder s lifestyle and preferences. Once the card officially launches later this year, there will be many packs to choose from. Currently, there are four.
These products are a reflection of an overall trend of customization in the industry, says Curtis Arnold, founder of the credit-card information web site CardRatings.com. Taken on face value, that s good news. Any time we give consumers more control and options, that s a good thing, he says.
The question is, does the ability to design your own credit card truly offer consumers a new and better product or are we just getting new packaging wrapped around old stuff?
Both Citibank and Discover say their customization tools give card members a significantly larger number of pricing choices than previously offered. We used to be more in the business of predicting what consumers wanted, says Anas Osman, a vice president of acquisition at Discover. Now we re able to allow the customer to come in and choose what s important to them.
But read the fine print. Choosing your own terms will entail making a variety of trade-offs: Getting a 0% APR on balance transfers, for example, means you ll have to accept a shorter promotional period and possibly a higher balance-transfer fee. And with Discover s tool, you cannot select an introductory offer at all if you want the lowest-available regular interest rate, which is currently 9.99%.
I would caution consumers against this type of thing, Arnold says. If they think they could come in and make a card truly on their own terms, they re wrong. At the end of the day, [the issuers] are still holding the cards.
Ultimately, allowing consumers to build their own credit card is little more than clever marketing, says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. It s the emotional positioning of financial institutions going from that of a harsh authoritarian parent to that of an amiable servant, she says. It s not like consumers are getting a better deal by designing [a credit card] themselves. They just feel more in control. And I can t possibly understate how important it is to consumers right now to feel in control of their credit cards.
And customization could backfire, says Jonathan Levav, a professor of marketing at Columbia University who focuses on the psychology of decision making and judgment. In theory, people are more willing to pay and willing to pay more -- for products that match their individual tastes. But give them too> many choices, and they may not necessarily make the one that s best for them.
Blame it on how the human mind works. You can only be presented with so many choices before you become overwhelmed and end up choosing the default option or one that seems familiar, whether it s most beneficial for you or not.
In theory, 20 choices would be great, but psychologically so many options and trade-offs could be difficult to cope with, Levav says. If you give people too many card features to choose from, my guess would be they d just look for ways to simplify.