Few consumers associate rich> rewards programs with debit cards because traditionally it's been credit cards that have offered more expansive benefits.
But now that more consumers are shunning credit and turning to debit, the banks are taking note. Debit-card users are actually outnumbering credit-card users now, and as a consequence of that, rewards are a bigger focus, says Rick Ferguson, editorial director of Colloquy, a loyalty marketing research firm.
While membership in credit-card rewards program is declining from 71% of the consumers surveyed by transaction processor First Data in 2008, to 67% this year debit-rewards participation increased significantly, from 34% of consumers surveyed in 2008 to 45% this year.
Just as banks used credit-card rewards to attract new customers and encourage credit-card spending in untapped markets (think double rewards for purchases at gas stations and fast-food restaurants, where cash was once the primary payment method), they are now starting to sweeten their debit rewards in hopes of luring more customers to their kind of plastic.
There s a lot at stake in that game. For one, rewards programs can actually help banks revenues from interchange fees, now that new regulations will significantly curtail their ability to collect overdraft fees, says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst who covers retail banking at market research firm Aite Group. And unlike a credit card, a debit card is attached to a checking account, which the bank can use as a launching point for strengthening its relationship with a consumer and cross-selling other products like savings accounts and certificates of deposit.
Consumers that may have moved over to debit cards because of economics are eventually going to start looking around and saying, Could I get more for my transaction? says Julie Bohn, a vice president for information services at First Data. If financial institutions don t respond now with good programs to keep consumers interested, you ll see that pendulum swing back where credit cards will earn the customer back.
The catch: Offering a rewards program isn t cheap. On average, a bank spends $20 to $25 per member each year for a debit rewards program, Shevlin says, which includes all costs associated with technology, marketing, support and redemptions. (Credit-card programs are more expensive, at an average $30 per member a year.)
And financing these programs isn t as easy as it is for credit card programs, which bring in more revenue from interest charges, fees and higher interchange rates. Generally, debit-card rewards aren t as rich because it s harder to fund a compelling rewards program out of a strict debit-card play, Ferguson says.
But the banks are finding some creative ways to offer compelling debit-rewards programs. Here s what you can expect to see in the following months.
1. More generous rewards in exchange for an annual fee
Case in point: With a Citibank debit card, you can earn a point for each $2 spent if you sign for purchases, and a point for each $3 spent if you use a PIN.) But lately, some banks are rolling out programs that, for an annual fee, offer rewards that are as rich as those you could expect from a credit card. In exchange for $25 a year to enroll your Chase (JPM)
If you use your debit card heavily, an annual fee of $20 to $25 may be worth considering. Because of the annual fee, these programs can offer a lot more earnings and it benefits consumers who can use that program for everything they spend, Bohn says.
2. Emphasis on merchant-sponsored rewards
If you already click through a shopping portal like ebates.com or a program like Upromise for your online purchases to earn additional rebates or rewards, this new debit-rewards structure will look awfully familiar. Debit-card issuers are increasingly partnering with retailers to offer discounts or rewards that are far more generous than their regular rewards. Because they are paid for by the merchant, the rewards can be as generous as 20% or 25%, Bohn says. Some programs are taking these rewards offline as well, so consumers can earn equally generous rewards in a retailer s bricks-and-mortar stores and through the issuer s online shopping portal.
But remember, these programs come with a big brother caveat. The bank or company running the program will monitor your purchases closely so it can target its offers to your individual shopping habits, Ferguson says. You re essentially trading information for value, he says.
3. More rewards for everyday banking
Citibank and Bank of America led the way with their programs allowing consumers to earn cash back or rewards points for simply having a checking account. Citi s Thank You program allows consumers to earn a fixed number of points per month based on the number and type of accounts they have with the bank. Bank of America s Keep the Change program rounds up all purchases to the nearest dollar amount and puts the difference in a savings account. The bank then matches 5% of those savings, up to $250 a year. Expect to see more programs like these, as banks look to expand their relationships with customers, Ferguson says.
Many community banks and credit unions offer so-called rewards checking accounts, paying yields as high as 6% on your balance provided you set up direct deposit and use your debit card a certain number of times a month. For more on these programs, click here.