More stories from Matthew Amster-Burton

Remember Mom’s department store credit card? High APR, low credit line, good only at the store? It’s back.

As of April 29, Target no longer issues Target-branded Visa cards; customers who want to open a credit account at the store will be issued Target store cards, usable only at Target stores or Target.com.

Now, to be clear, Target will still be accepting Visa, and existing Target Visa cardholders will keep their cards. So what’s the big deal? The explanation, be forewarned, involves the S-word.

A Clever CARD Act Loophole

Have you ever wondered how much retailers make on credit cards? When you sign up for a Target card, it’s issued by the retailer’s own Target National Bank. (No, seriously!) Target grosses over $1 billion per year on finance charges and late fees alone. Notice I said “grosses”; more on this in a minute.

Retailers would like everyone to buy on credit. If customer has a low credit score, no problem: traditionally, that person is charged a higher interest rate to cover the risk.

Here’s how it used to work: “People that weren’t able to get Visa cards a lot of times started out with the store card,” says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University. “[The store card issuers] reduce the risk by charging more interest and assuming some people aren’t going to end up paying. Some people who maybe couldn’t get credit somewhere else got a Target card and then became loyal Target shoppers, just because they didn’t have credit to shop anywhere else.”

Indeed, the Target Visa card carries an APR that’s 2% lower than the store card. Sure, that doesn’t sound like much. “On the surface it looks pretty meaningless, but it’s still pretty significant, if you start adding up the number of cardholders,” says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com.

Target is experimenting with their credit card business because profits have collapsed. In 2007, the chain made $797 million on its card business. By 2009, that profit had dropped by three-quarters, to $201 million. The reason? People stopped paying their bills. Target has had to write off over $1 billion in bad debt two years in a row.

At the same time, the Credit CARD Act, which went into effect this year, makes it hard for retailers to deal with this in their traditional way, which is to jack up interest rates on the total balance for customers who are still making payments.

Target says as much in their 2009 annual report: “The recent Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 has significantly restricted our ability to make changes to cardholder terms that are commensurate with changes in the risk profile of our credit card receivables portfolio.”

Creeping Towards Subprime

So Target is making a gamble: give every new customer who opens a credit account the Target card. Which, by the way, currently has a 25.24% APR and a tiny minimum payment of 1% plus interest. This is creeping toward the terms you see on cards that serve a particular market, the S-word I was talking about earlier: subprime. “There are certain banks that tend to play in that space. I wouldn’t call it subprime, but let’s call it the FICO scores that aren’t stellar,” says Dennis Moroney, an analyst at market research firm TowerGroup.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it subprime,” agrees CardRatings.com’s Arnold. “It’s more of a near-prime card.”

Remember, this is for all new Target credit customers, not just the ones with mediocre credit scores. Charge $1,000 on that card and pay the minimum, and you’ll be out a total of $2,402 until you pay it off in 10.5 years. Incidentally, thanks to the Credit CARD Act, information about the minimum payment will appear in a box on your bill. (You can calculate how long it will take you to pay down your debt using this calculator.)

Of course, that’s not how Target explains the move. As a spokeperson explained to me, the company did a study in which some customers who would have been issued Visa cards received store cards instead. Those customers averaged more visits to Target stores and spent more money than the Visa cardholders.

Target is also experimenting with its rewards program. The current deal is, once a Target cardholder racks up a certain number of reward points, they get 10% off on a single day’s shopping at Target. The chain is testing a new regime which would offer Target cardholders 3% or 5% off at all times.

As consumers rouse themselves from the recession, Target wants to “catch the economy on an uptick,” Moroney says. “There’s got to be a lot of pent-up demand. I mean, things don’t last forever. People like big-screen TVs and so on.”

Credit customers are hugely important for Target and its competitors. “The retailers are looking how to drive sales up, and you can do that with credit,” says Moroney. “I expect to see more merchants doing this–the big ones, anyway, the Walmarts and so on.”

Will Target’s Move Backfire: For The Retailer or Its Customers?

Arnold is skeptical that anyone will want to carry both a general purpose credit card and a Target card. “I’m afraid it’s going to backfire to some extent on them,” he says. “These cards are kind of dinosaurs.”

Should anyone carry the Target store card? I could see it working out for customers who spend a lot at Target and never carry a balance, since in most cases a single month of interest would wipe out any reward discounts.

But Target is betting heavily that Target card customers will revolve credit–that is, that they’ll eventually pay up to double the sticker price at Target stores for the privilege of borrowing a little of Target’s money. Membership has its privileges. I guess.

Terms, conditions, features, availability, pricing, fees, service and support options subject to change without notice.


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targer card

UPDATE 1/12/2016: The American Express for Target card has been discontinued

Targer card

I recently posted “The 5X everywhere backup plan” where I showed how people unable to buy Vanilla Reload cards could still earn 5 points per dollar everywhere by making use of the American Express for Target card. I consider it the backup plan to the “One card to rule them all” trick. I also plan to follow-up with one or more additional posts showing how best to leverage this card.

In this post, I’ll tell you how to go about getting one of the Target Amex cards.

Unlike the regular American Express Prepaid cards and the new Bluebird card, the Target Amex cards cannot be ordered online. Instead, you need to first buy a temporary card at a participating Target and then wait for a permanent card to (hopefully) arrive. I found the whole process surprisingly difficult. To save you some headache, I’ve laid out below everything you need to know:

In order to get the American Express for Target card, you need to go in person to a Target store that carries them. You can find those stores here.

Find the temporary card in the store

Finding the card isn’t easy. In my case, I had to ask four or five employees before I found someone who knew what I was talking about. Most employees pointed me towards regular Amex gift cards. In the end, I found the card I wanted by one (and only one) of the many checkout lanes. Here is what to look for:

My advice is to look at all of the displays near and above the checkout lanes until you find a card that looks like the one pictured above. Make sure it says “reloadable prepaid card.” Otherwise you may be buying a simple, uninteresting gift card.

Now that you’ve found the card, it should be easy to buy it right? I wish! The surprising thing here is that when you buy this card, the cashier will be prompted to ask you all kinds of questions that you probably don’t really want to answer while a line of angry customers forms behind you. They’ll ask for your full name and address. They’ll ask you to input your SSN on the keypad. I can’t remember all of the questions I had to answer, but I’m pretty sure they asked me to describe my life’s most embarrassing moment (“easy – this one!”). Finally, after sharing all of your personal information with the cashier and the angry mob behind you, you can pay for the initial card load with any credit card. There is a $3 fee for each load.

NOTE: In case you’re worried that a credit card load will be treated as a cash advance: I have tested loads and reloads with Chase, Amex, and Citi credit cards. All transactions were credited as regular Target purchases, not as cash advances (that’s a good thing).

The card you just bought at Target is a temporary card that cannot be reloaded. You can use it for regular credit purchases, but not for ATM withdrawals. If all goes well, you will receive your permanent card in the mail in a few weeks. If not, you’ll receive a letter or email stating that they were unable to verify your identity. That’s what happened to me. So, I called and they resubmitted my application. A few weeks later I received another letter stating that they were unable to confirm my identity (Really? You know I carry a gazillion Amex cards, right?). Ultimately I had to buy another temporary card in order to try again. The second attempt succeeded. I have no idea why the first attempt failed, but I’ve heard from others who have had similar experiences so don’t be surprised if it happens to you too!