Sears, Roebuck & Co., attempting to be a major player in the profitable credit-card industry, yesterday unveiled a number of inducements to spur consumers to sign up for its "Discover" card, which will be launched on a limited basis next month.
The promotions include gift certificates at Sears, discounts at nationwide restaurants, hotel and hospital chains, cash awards and lower monthly interest charges on revolving credit balances.
Sears President Edward A. Brennan said at a press conference that more than 3,000 Georgia merchants have agreed to accept transactions made with the Discover card. National merchants are signing up at the rate of 900 a day, he added.
Nonetheless, no department store chain or mass merchant -- either in Georgia or elsewhere -- has yet agreed to accept the card. "We have several in the works that we hope to sign up within the month," a Sears official said yesterday.
Some of the retailer's top rivals, including K mart Corp. -- the nation's second-largest retail chain just behind Sears -- said yesterday that they have not been contacted by Sears officials about using the Discover card, however. But even if they had, they probably would have been rebuffed, K mart Executive Vice President Robert E. Brewer indicated yesterday. "I can't see any reason why we need another card," he said.
Sears did contact Rich's, a major department store chain in Georgia, but was turned down. "We see Sears as a competitor, and part of their promotion is to give a Sears gift certificate," said Anne Berg, vice president of public relations. "We would be promoting our competition if we accepted it."
As announced earlier, the card is more than a conventional credit card. It also can be used to set up a family savings account in which interest rates rise as the balance increases. Sears officials said yesterday that the interest rate would be comparable to "high money-market rates" with a $1,000 minimum deposit.
Discover-card holders also will be able to withdraw cash at automated teller machines in at least six different states, with the National Bank of Atlanta and Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh agreeing to accept electronic transactions from Discover-card holders.
Brennan said that for the initial year Sears will impose no annual fee on Discover-card holders. The annual finance charge on revolving credit balances more than 30 days old will be 19.8 percent -- down from the 21 percent imposed on regular Sears credit-card accounts in Georgia.
The card's central feature, he said, is its dividend policy. Consumers will be given a yearly dividend equal to 1 percent of all their annual purchases. They will be able to apply these dividends toward their balance, deposit them in a family savings account set up through the card, or use them to buy Sears merchandise.
Sears plans to send letters to all of its active 26 million credit-card holders early next month promoting its Discover card. As an inducement, Sears will offer $20 of store coupons, one-half off the price of an Allstate Motor Club membership and $99.99 worth of service at a Sears Auto Center.
Nationwide chains also have indicated they will offer special promotions for Discover customers. These include:
*A discount of up to $250 on American Airlines for first-time ticket purchases with the card.
*20 percent discounts for Budget Rent-A-Car users.
*30 percent discounts on rooms at Holiday Inns on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
*50 percent discounts on insurance deductibles and laboratory work done for routine physical examinations at participating affiliate hospitals of Hospital Corp. of America.
*$2.99 meals at Denny's restaurants.
The promotions were immediately criticized as "laughable" by Spencer Nilson, publisher of the international newsletter for credit-card executives. Citing the Denny's restaurants promotion, Nilson said that the promotions "apply to a blue-collar worker who doesn't even qualify for a bank card -- the bib and overall crowd. . . . They will have no impact whatsoever on the credit-card industry."
Marla R. Kaplan, associate director of Bankcard Holders of America -- a nonprofit organization representing credit-card users, also criticized Sears for its 19.8 percent revolving interest rate. Although it is lower than the rate charged the normal Sears credit-card customer, Kaplan said it was still too high, considering the prime rate now hovers around 9.5 percent.