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Credit Card Rewards & Loyalty Program Stats

Dec. 14, 2009
4 mins
A woman reads out her credit card details as a man types the information into a laptop

The Toronto Star's Dana Flavelle, continued her reports on the Canadian credit cards industry with an article on reward and loyalty programs. Here are the most interesting facts from it:

  • Collectively, there are 114 million active members of rewards programs in Canada, according to Colloquy, the market research arm of LoyaltyOne, the group that owns the Air Miles program.
  • That's more than four rewards programs for every man, woman and child in the country.
  • Many loyalty or credit card rewards programs are part of a retailer's marketing program. Retailers pay to join Air Miles because it helps drive cardholders to their stores. Shoppers Drug Mart uses its Optimum card to attract customers and push selected merchandise by doubling or tripling the points on those items. These kinds of loyalty programs make up about 80% of the rewards program market in Canada.
  • The Consumers Association of Canada opposes anything that would reduce the value of rewards programs, such as caps on credit card interest rates and fees.
  • Nearly 50% of Canadians use a credit card simply because it offers rewards, citing first points, then flights and finally cash as their preferred rewards, according to Chicago-based research firm Mintel International Inc.
  • Retailers say there is a fundamental problem in the way credit card programs are funded. They foot the entire bill but they do not derive all the benefits and say they have no ability to negotiate the rates.
  • "I can tell you, without a doubt, that all of the credit cards that come with rewards programs are fully paid for by the merchants," says Diane Brisebois, president of the Retail Council of Canada. The council estimates such fees now cost merchants $4.5 billion a year, or roughly 2% of the value of every purchase. That amounts to nearly $400 per household, assuming these costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
  • The Bank of Canada concluded credit cards have become the most expensive form of payment for merchants. The average debit card transaction costs 12 cents, but a credit card transaction costs 2 to 4% of the value of the sale, according to the central bank.
  • The new premium cards, such as Visa's Infinite card, come with more perks for consumers but cost merchants more to accept.
  • Retailers say these cards now represent 25% of the value of all transactions and have a huge and unpredictable impact on the fees they face at the end of the month.
  • The bankers' association says premium cards represent just 9% of their credit card accounts and benefit the merchant by bringing in higher net worth customers.
  • Add in other interchange changes and these new premium cards helped boost processing fees more than 10% for Visa and nearly 20% for MasterCard in the 12-month period ending last February, retailers say.
  • The credit card companies dispute the retailers' figures, saying they have raised rates for some types of transactions and lowered them for others so the overall impact is neutral. The retail council says the new rates are designed to boost credit card use in grocery stores, gas stations and coffee shops where consumers prefer to use cash or debit.

Interchange rates & fees

  • That's because merchant "swipe" fees are based largely on something called the "interchange rate." Credit card companies say interchange keeps the system running smoothly. In a two-way network, where both sides have to agree to participate, it ensures banks have an incentive to issue cards to consumers, and merchants have an incentive to accept them, they say.
  • The fee is collected by the merchant's bank and paid to the cardholder's bank to compensate the card issuer for the cost of bringing cardholders into the system, the credit card companies say.
  • "Interchange is determined by MasterCard and makes up part of the fee paid by the merchant," Kevin Stanton, president of MasterCard Canada, told a Senate committee hearing earlier this year.
  • Merchants and small business owners say the system encourages a weird form of reverse competition in which credit card companies compete for the banks' business by raising the interchange rate at the merchants' expense.
  • This wasn't a problem as long as merchants felt the rates were reasonable and negotiable, Brisebois says. That's no longer the case.
  • Ever since most of Canada's banks outsourced their merchant-acquiring business to third parties, it's been a lot tougher for merchants to strike deals on credit card processing fees.
  • "The merchant used to deal directly with the branch manager of their bank. The merchant could negotiate with the manager, who wanted to keep the merchant's banking business," Brisebois explains.
  • The situation took a turn for the worse after the credit card companies fiddled with their interchange rate structure and introduced a new class of "premium" cards. After years of relatively steady, predictable fees, both Visa and MasterCard expanded the number and kind of rates retailers pay from two or three rates to between 19 and 21.
Penelope Graham

A first-time homeowner and newbie investor, Penelope Graham is the quintessential millennial, navigating the world of personal finance and wealth management. A self-professed monetary policy nerd, she follows the often-controversial housing market closely and specializes in mortgage, credit card and personal finance news.

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