American Express Co., which for years fiercely guarded the “platinum card” name it created and accused banks that issued low-brow platinum cards of debasing its prize product, has apparently joined the ranks of the debasers.

Now that it has completed the purchase and conversion of its first U.S. bank card portfolio — the $70 million, 230,000-card cobranded ShopRite MasterCard portfolio it bought from Valley National Bank of Wayne, N.J. — American Express is issuing a card that sounds like an oxymoron: the American Express Platinum ShopRite.

American Express has taken pains to explain that the new credit card is a wholly different kettle of fish from its platinum charge card, which bears an annual fee of several hundred dollars and entitles its superrich holders to a dizzying array of amenities.

By contrast, people who hold the American Express Platinum ShopRite can earn points toward groceries from the chain owned by Wakefern Food Corp.

The ShopRite card — which came in standard and gold versions when it was a MasterCard — is not the only mass-market product on which American Express has bestowed the platinum name. It already offers platinum versions of two travel cobranded cards, its Hilton Hhonors and Delta Skymiles products.

The portfolio switchover between Valley National and American Express occurred at midnight Jan. 29. ShopRite’s Web site lists phone numbers for both American Express and Valley National for customer questions; a Valley National spokesman said it had received no complaints.

A ShopRite spokeswoman said all the customer responses it received were positive and that it has had more than 300 card activations in one day.

The portfolio is small by American Express’ standards, but the real value of the card to Amex may be in what it can teach about how cardholders react to getting their new cards in the mail.

The company has bought two credit card portfolios from U.S. banks and said it will buy more.

American Express is giving customers a sweetened deal to entice them to use the new card. Unlike the ShopRite MasterCard, the American Express Platinum ShopRite imposes no deductible before shoppers begin to earn points toward rewards. For the first month, the card will earn a 2% reward on dollars spent at ShopRite and 1% for purchases elsewhere. After Feb. 28 the reward rates will drop to 1% on ShopRite purchases and 0.5% for buying elsewhere.

The card carries no annual fee, and its interest rate of prime plus 7.9% is the same as when it was a MasterCard. For every $5 of reward money cardholders earn, American Express is to insert in the cardholder’s statement a $5 reward certificate good for merchandise in ShopRite stores.

One industry consultant says the reward certificates, which must be presented to earn the discount, may be a good marketing ploy to spread buzz about the card.

“Certificates breed word of mouth — ‘How did you get that?’,” said Chris Theoharides, president of Advantage Consulting Group, a Massapequa, N.Y., card industry consulting company. “It is a reasonable value proposition from the standpoint of supermarket cards.”

He also said his firm believes that Amex “will seek cobranded opportunities more aggressively.”


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