Promises of points, miles and> cash back used to be one way card issuers lured in new customers -- and kept them loyal. But now plenty of those promises are being broken as a number of issuers cut back on rewards and other programs.
Citibank just invoked sweeping changes to its Thank You Network rewards program. It swapped a tiered system for flight redemption (which offered flights valued at $400 or less for 20,000 points) in favor of one that charges 100 points per dollar. More changes are slated for March 15 when Citi plans to invoke an expiration date for points, a fee to use points on accounts with a late payment and a requirement that cardholders must forfeit their rewards when the account is closed.
Nancy Gordon, executive vice president for the Thank You Network, says the changes help Citibank stay competitive with other issuers. But to customers, it feels quite definitively like they're getting the short end of the stick. It s like they said, Wait! This rewards program is actually rewarding you? We can t have that, gripes Ed Ridgway, a Citibank customer who lives in Narberth, Pa.
Citibank s move is just the latest in a flurry of reward program cutbacks. Nearly every major issuer has altered their reward offerings over the past year in some way: attaching more strings to membership, limiting cardholders earning ability, scaling back reward offerings or inflating redemption levels.
Not only do rewards cards carry interest rates that are a percentage point or two higher than standard cards, but many also charge merchants higher processing fees, says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com However, the cost of providing these programs, and the resulting rewards, has gotten extremely costly for most issuers, says Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst with investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. In this environment where credit is hard to come by, pulling back rewards doesn t necessarily translate to defection [to another issuer], he says. It s just another lever issuers can pull to cut costs.
The first rewards cards to get hit were mile-earning cards and travel rewards. Last fall, Capital One (COF)
In January, Discover (DFS)
Issuers are also backpedaling on promotions that offered rewards in common spending categories. In December, American Express (AXP)
Chase reduced its popular Freedom card program for new cardholders in November to one point per dollar spent, a fraction of its previous offer of triple points per dollar spent on purchases in a cardholder's top three spending categories and one point per dollar on everything else. Previous cardholders earn rewards under the old system. Chase declined to comment on the reasons behind the changes, citing proprietary information.
Frank Prihoda of Princeton, N.J., got his Chase Freedom Rewards card in 2006. He switched after Citibank cut new cardholder rewards on its Citi Dividends card -- a move it echoed for older accounts just months later. I ll -- once again -- have to go find a program that s more rewarding, he says.
For more on our series about credit-card issuers' recent moves, read:
This story was corrected on March 6, 2009. The original story incorrectly stated that Discover had changed the application bonus on its miles card from 12,000 bonus miles just for opening an account to 1,000 bonus miles each month they make a purchase using their card during the first 12 months. In fact, the card has always required a monthly purchase to earn 12,000 bonus miles over the course of a year.>