‘Social’ credit card from Barclays lets users set terms


A logo sits outside a Barclays Plc bank branch in London, U.K. (Simon Dawson/BLOOMBERG)
March 8, 2012

As the financial industry faces deteriorating public opinion and a raft of new regulations, one bank is adopting an un­or­tho­dox philosophy: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Barclays this week announced that it is launching a new credit card that will use social media to crowdsource features that could range from where call centers are located to the size of late fees. The British bank said the goal is to rebuild trust among increasingly wary consumers and create a new level of transparency for credit cards. It even plans to disclose how much it makes off the card — and potentially return some of that money to customers.

“Underneath it is the core tenets that people are asking for,” said Paul Wilmore, managing director of consumer markets for Barclaycard US, the bank’s payments division. “It’s simple and transparent, and people have a voice in dictating how these features work.”

According to a Gallup survey last summer, a record 36 percent of Americans reported that they lacked confidence in the nation’s banks. Less than a quarter of the people surveyed said they viewed banks positively. That sentiment was crystallized in the fall when Bank of America tried to institute a $5 fee for its debit cards. Angry consumers revolted online, signing petitions and organizing a “move your money” day. Bank of America eventually backed away from the fee.

Consumers aren’t the only ones lashing out at banks. Congress passed sweeping reforms of the credit card industry three years ago aimed at limiting fees and interest-rate hikes. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it has received roughly 12,000 complaints about credit cards since opening for business last summer. One of the top issues? Consumer confusion.

Wilmore said Barclays has taken these lessons to heart.

“The government’s telling us three things: You’ve got to be simple, you’ve got to be transparent, and you’ve got to be fair to the consumer,” he said.

The Barclaycard Ring MasterCard has no traditional rewards program but carries an 8 percent interest rate for all balances — well below the average rate of 14.25 percent, according to Lowcards.com. Late fees are capped at $25.

Lowcards.com Chief Executive Bill Hardekopf said those terms are generally reserved for consumers with the most pristine credit histories. It remains to be seen who can actually qualify for the credit card, though Wilmore said it is targeted at consumers who carry a balance. The card’s Web site encourages interested customers to “request an invitation.”

Wilmore said the terms serve as starting points in what he hopes will be an ongoing discussion among cardholders. The bank launched a pilot group last year to offer feedback — and even vote — on the card’s features. For example, cardholders may decide they would rather pay a higher interest rate but lower late fees. Wilmore envisions holding such votes once or twice a year.

Central to those decisions will be customers’ ability to share in the card’s profits, which will be made public to members. Though Wilmore said the percentage that will be returned to consumers has not been determined, it will give them “skin in the game” for balancing the burden of fees with receiving rewards.

Still, John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com, cautioned that customers shouldn’t expect to design the credit card of their dreams.

“It’s a good idea to give the cardholder an impression that they have some amount of control over the terms of their credit card amounts,” he said. “But whatever terms the consumer ends up with will be within the terms that Barclays is comfortable with.” ­­

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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