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Issuers push premium credit card offers in 2011

Janna Herron

Business owners, the well-heeled and well-traveled, and cash-back enthusiasts all got new credit cards to choose from this year. Five major issuers rolled out 13 new credit and charge cards in 2011 with features and perks that run the gamut.

Capital One introduced three new credit cards this year, while Chase rolled out two new credit cards and American Express unveiled one credit card and a charge card. Bank of America launched two credit cards and offered three new small-business charge cards. Citi debuted one credit card this year.

Only Wells Fargo and Discover didn't announce new card products this year, but offered up some card enhancements to entice consumers.

"Demand has been low for getting new cards into the hands of new consumers," says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "So, issuers really have been working on this constant upping and tweaking of cards."

Plastic for the pampered

The upper-crust consumer gained three more card options this year. Chase rolled out its Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card in June, while American Express partnered with Mercedes-Benz to offer a co-branded credit and charge card in August.

"The banks have been aggressively going after the super-credit customers because (the banks) want to manage their credit," says Dennis Moroney, research director in bank cards at TowerGroup. "So we've seen them really sweetening the offers."

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card and Mercedes-Benz American Express Platinum charge card feature five points for every $1 spent at the respective co-brand company. Both cards offer a $200 annual credit for airline fees along with major perks at the co-brand company. The Platinum card goes one step further: Cardholders get 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first three months.

Still, the hefty annual fees -- $395 for the Ritz-Carlton credit card and $475 for the Mercedes-Benz Platinum charge card -- are a reminder these cards aren't created with the average Joe in mind. The Mercedes-Benz Credit Card from American Express is a bit cheaper with its $95 annual fee and offers more pedestrian perks suited more for the mass affluent than the uber-wealthy.

Globe-trotters get goods

Another favorite type of credit card for issuers is one that caters to the leisure traveler.

"Year over year, the only cards we see consumers willing to pay annual fees for are airline cards," says Doug Miller, a senior analyst for banking and cards at Corporate Insight.

This year, a laundry list of issuers eliminated foreign transaction fees on many travel cards. A few also introduced EMV -- a common technology used abroad -- to existing card products to cut down the hassle of overseas travel.

American Express went the extra mile this year and added new benefits to its Delta SkyMiles Gold and Platinum credit cards (annual fee of $95 and $150, respectively, after the first year). Cardholders gained priority boarding on Delta flights and 20 percent off certain in-flight services.

This year, Chase also unveiled its United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which offers one first checked bag free, priority boarding, access to airport lounges and the ability to redeem miles for any seat with no restrictions.

The Chase card is a streamlined version of its past United Airlines card offerings, says Miller. The issuer rolled through a half-dozen or so United cards over the past few years, each offering different annual fees and perks, he says.

Cash flow

The real darling these days seems to be the cash-back rewards cards. This year, three cash-back cards came off the proverbial factory line, while two issuers -- Discover and Chase -- enhanced their cash-back programs.

"Banks are putting a lot of money behind their cash cards," says Miller. "Just look at TV: BankAmericard has its 1-2-3 ad campaign. Capital One Cash has Jimmy Fallon."

Capital One got the ball rolling in February with its Capital One Journey Student Rewards Credit Card. Students earn 1 percent on all purchases. As a bonus for good behavior, students receive an extra 25 percent every month they pay their bill on time.

The issuer followed up in August with its Capital One Cash card, which offers cardholders 1 percent on all purchases, a 50 percent anniversary bonus on cash earned the previous year and $100 cash back after spending $500 in the first three months.

Bank of America also announced its BankAmericard Cash Rewards card that rewards cardholders up to 3 percent cash back on certain purchases. The deal is sweeter when consumers deposit their rewards into a Bank of America checking or savings account: They get an extra 10 percent more.

"Consumers are no longer interested in complicated rewards for products," says Bill McCracken, CEO of Synergistics Research Corp. "What is foremost in our minds is cash or cash equivalent."

Issuers cater to small biz

Small-business owners also got their fair share of cash-back options this year. Bank of America in May launched a suite of three small-business charge cards -- two of which offered cash-back features.

The bank came back in August with its Cash Rewards for Business MasterCard that offered 1 percent on all purchases, 2 percent on dining, and 3 percent on office supplies, gas and computer services.

That same month, Capital One announced its Business No-Hassle Cash Premier credit card with 2 percent cash back on all purchases, plus a one-time bonus of $100 after spending $1,000 in the first three months.

"Small-business cards don't have the same CARD Act protections as consumer cards, so issuers are rolling out new ones or enhancing existing cards," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. "All the stuff the CARD Act got rid of is still fair game in the small-business world."

The Credit Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, or the CARD Act, eliminated very profitable but questionable practices such as retroactive rate increases, unannounced fees and double-cycle billing. The rules, however, don't apply to small-business credit cards.

Last, but not least

Citi also unveiled a new credit card this year that didn't fall neatly into a category. The Citi Simplicity Card came out in July and features no late fees or penalty rate and one interest rate on all transactions -- purchases, cash advances and balance transfers.

The company said the card is in response to consumer surveys that found that 2 in 5 people paid a bill late in the past year. Otherwise, the card has no bells and whistles, just the simple peace of mind that its name implies.

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