Credit cards have been a staple for retail rewards programs for decades (you know, like that Visa card they try to make you sign up for every time you go to Gap). They've been an effective way to reward customers, and for retailers to get additional funding.
But a new report by analysts Michael Exstein, Christopher Su and Trey Schorgl at Credit Suisse says that it's time for retailers to abandon the credit card. Why are credit-based rewards programs not the right way to go anymore?
1. The cost of rewards programs keeps rising for banks. As rewards competition ramps up, issuer margins are pressured.
2. As the programs get more expensive, banks will offset costs in other areas. This will result in either less beneficial terms for retailers, or higher fees for consumers. Retailers may have to increase their own rewards programs to remain competitive
3. Retailers' relationships with their customers could be hurt, because banks (who are now in control of many retailers' credit businesses) could squeeze consumers. Since the programs are branded for retailers, not the banks, consumers would deem them responsible.
Credit Suisse instead suggests that the answer to these woes is simple. Switch over to programs based around membership fees or other upfront investments. "Going forward, we think the emerging trend will be the need for consumers to “invest” in loyalty programs, thereby creating a "vested interest," says the report.
So what brands are doing it right so far?
Amazon -- The Amazon Prime membership program has been vastly successful. Consumers pay an annual membership fee of $79, and get shipping benefits, free use of Amazon Instant Video and perks for their Kindle.
Costco -- The largest membership warehouse club in the world has three levels of membership. There's a $55 annual fee for businesses, a $55 'Gold' card for individuals and a $55 executive member upgrade, which gives folks a 2% discount on most purchases.
Sam's Club -- Walmart's warehouse subsidiary has a similar system, with a $40 per year Advantage card for individuals ($100 for Advantage Plus which offers extra savings) and a $35 per year Business membership ($100 for Business Plus).
Macy's -- "Thanks for Sharing" is a program that's working for Macy's to generate loyalty. It requires a $25 upfront investment (which is actually a donation to charity), in exchange for rewards.
Target -- The REDcard is a 'hybrid' method which has been working well since the retailer started it up in 2010. It offers 5% savings on everything and includes shipping benefits.
These programs all capitalize on the concept of creating that "vested interest." Customers, having already paid a set of promised benefits, will be more likely to keep spending to use those benefits that they've already paid for. They'll keep coming back.
NOW SEE: The 20 Brands With The Most Loyal Customers >
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