Consumers with rewards-based cards prefer lower-value benefits such as cash-back incentives to longer-term perks such as airline miles, survey data suggest.

Synergistics Research Corp., an Atlanta-based financial-services research firm, conducted the national online survey of 1,000 consumers ages 18 and older in late 2009.

The company found that 44% of survey participants preferred programs that offer lower-value rewards such as statement rebates, discounts at various merchants or gift cards. In a similar 2006 survey, just 26% of participants preferred such rewards.

Today’s consumers prefer lower-value, faster rewards because often they find calculating points for some long-term reward cards to be complicated, especially travel-based rewards cards, Bill McCracken, Synergistics CEO, tells PaymentsSource.

In fact, 36% of survey participants said cash rebates likely would increase their credit card use, while only 13% said travel rewards would do so.

“Consumers don’t want points or miles,” McCracken says. “They want some kind of cash component that is easy to see and understand.”

Travel-based reward cards, which are part of the long-term, high-value rewards sector, have “really decreased in preference in a mass-market view,” McCracken says. But a specific segment of households that earn more than $100,000 annually still prefer travel-based benefits, he adds.

The survey found that 24% of participants said they prefer to split their participation between long-term and short-term rewards, down from 28% who said so in 2006.

Additionally, 44% of participants said they are not willing to pay for a credit card reward program, while 27% said they would be willing to pay at least $50 annually.

While most consumers have been “conditioned to expect a rich rewards program for free, the economics of that model is going away, and it is hard for consumers to understand that,” McCracken says.

Most issuers are moving to a two-tiered system, offering one card with no annual fee that support lower-value rewards and a fee-based card with richer rewards, McCracken notes. “There really isn’t going to be any middle ground,” he says.

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