Do we need credit card rewards?

This topic may resonate more with North American readers than with Europeans, the latter being not quite so obsessed with credit card rewards. I came across an article in Forbes by Alan McIntyre on this topic, which made me pause to think about the future of cards and rewards, and whether this rather old-fashioned system will survive in a more fintech-led financial system.

For some time Americans have been receiving bonuses for spending on their cards. They have come to expect these ‘gifts’. Of course all this comes at a cost to the credit card companies. According to new research from Accenture, rewards spending by the top five credit card issuers grew to $31 billion in 2018, up from $11 billion in 2015.

McIntyre suggests that the cash-back Apple card might be “the peak of card rewards” and that this entire system is on its way out. As he also mentions, card companies are having to figure out how to deal “with a less attractive volume-value trade-off.”

At the moment the payments industry is still on the winning side with the trade-off, as its revenue has grown by $50 over the last three years. It’s worth somewhere around $300 billion and it is expected to grow 4% by 2025.

However, the American payments industry is lagging a bit behind the rest of the world in this respect. In Europe and Asia, the consumer payments sector is moving to “high-volume, low-margin payments,” and “many of those are moving over account-to-account payment rails rather than over the card networks.” Here’s why it’s changing. In Asia, for example, it costs a merchant only 0.5% on average to accept an Alipay payment, while credit card payments in the U.S. can still be over 2% for many merchants.

The pressure on the North American payments industry to shift over to this model will come from the merchants. The consumer is less likely to change, because they love getting those rewards when they spend with their card. But that significant percentage difference in cost to the merchant is a big deal.

McIntyre says that recent research shows, “We are already seeing merchants begin to favoor debit over credit as a lower-cost payment mechanism, and favouring their own loyalty schemes rather than relying on those run by the card-issuing banks.”

And he says there are two other factors that will end rewards: “The first is the belated development of real-time payments in the U.S. and the opportunity it provides for merchants to have lower-cost payments that will be even cheaper than debit transactions.”

The second major driver of change will be “the continued internalization of payments by major retailers to avoid having to pay merchant acceptance fees at all.” Starbucks, Walmart, Uber and Amazon are the frontrunners in this system.

It seems unlikely to me, thinking over all this, that the old North American credit card rewards model will last for much longer. But I do think that whilst the merchants may be the driving force of this change, there will also be a need for consumer education, so that they understand why their rewards have been taken away.

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