Credit card reward system loses luster as points devalue

08:34, January 10, 2011      

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After racking up 10 million air miles, George Clooney is given a platinum travel card, and he uses his accumulated credit card points to get two air tickets worth 500,000 miles apiece as a reward.

That is the end of the Oscar-nominated movie Up in the Air. Nowadays in China, however, credit card points cannot be redeemed that easily for gifts.

Many Chinese banks increased the point cost of gifts last year to hold onto more of their profits.

On the website of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the cost of a USB flash disk has risen from 250,000 points to 270,000 in six months. To get 500 air miles with a Bank of China credit card costs 8,000 points.

"I exchanged 6,000 points in November for an electric iron with a market price of about 170 yuan ($25.65). But the same points could get a traveling bag worth 600 yuan in 2009," said Yang Yi, a China Merchants Bank credit card user.

She couldn't take her eyes off a small vacuum cleaner in the bank's online credit-card-services gift catalog. "But it costs 15,600 points, which means I would have to spend 312,000 yuan on my card," Yang said.

At China Merchants Bank, customers now get one point for every 20 yuan they spend on their credit card. Other banks, in China give one point for one yuan. Additionally, some banks, such as Bank of China and China Everbright Bank, will not allow the transfer of accumulated points from an expired to a renewed card, so customers lose those points. Credit cards generally expire within one to two years.

"We can't collect very many points in that time unless we use credit cards to buy houses or cars," said Zhang Zheng, an ICBC customer.

Most banks stipulate that credit card points are not awarded for car or house purchases or hospital expenses.

Zhang said that it was the lure of the gifts that attracted him to opening a credit card account, "but now I can't collect enough points for a good gift."

Wei Na, a teller at a Beijing branch of ICBC, said that her bank explained on its website that the point cost of gifts was increasing, so customers were well aware of the changes.

She said that growing inflation has raised the operating cost of rewards for credit card customers. "So reducing the amount of gifts will help the bank reach its annual profit target from credit card services."

"In 2010, the growth of the credit card business depended mainly on the lure of gifts because keeping existing clients by offering reward items costs banks less than developing new clients," said Nie Junfeng, a credit card expert from China Citic Bank.

According to a report from Data100 Market Research, a Beijing-based market research and consultant company, the more competitive banks gave greater attention to keeping existing credit card clients through gifts; while small banks focused on increasing new accounts.

Nie said, however, that the growing number of Chinese credit card users and expanding "points for gifts" services have increased the operating costs of many banks. "The pressure on banks will increase in the future, so they should change promotional strategies in advance, " he said.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission released a draft in August that required banks to stop cutthroat competitions and increase information transparency for clients opening credit card accounts.

The large number of new credit cards issued in 2010 has greatly increased banks' credit risk, so they should be more prudent about expanding card services in the future, Nie said.

China Daily

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