American Express' new credit card strategy is paying off, according to a study conducted by Brittain Associates Inc. of Atlanta.
The study focused on the Optima True Grace card, American Express' first credit card since it introduced the original Optima card in 1987.
Brittain Associates concluded that the product has garnered 1.1 million customers, which is slightly more than what even American Express initially predicted it would acquire.
The New York-based card giant said last September when it launched True Grace, that it expected to generate 500,000 to one million accounts.
A spokeswoman for the company would not confirm the Brittain findings, but she said, "It is very consistent with the comments we have made about the progress of True Grace."
Critics of True Grace, which offers a 25-day grace period on all new purchases, doubted whether American Express could successfully communicate its product to consumers. They contended that most people do not understand grace periods anyway, so American Express would first have to educate consumers.
The Atlanta firm surveyed 4,020 households by telephone between April 19 and May 2 to measure how many people own a True Grace card. Card spending behavior and consumer awareness were also assessed, but released only to people who purchased the firm's research.
The American Express spokeswoman said the research revealed that Optima True Grace cardholders tend to be younger and more affluent than the average MasterCard and Visa cardholder. Also, they typically extend payments on all of the cards they hold.
American Express plans to populate its portfolio with more Optima cards than just the True Grace product. To that end it is testing various cards, including a 2% cash rebate Optima card and a few gold cards with "very attractive interest rates," said the spokeswoman.
However, these other products will be launched with a lot less fanfare than True Grace, which benefited from a lavish advertising budget that included lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who is the card's national spokeswoman.
The point of promoting True Grace more heavily, said the spokeswoman, was to let people know that American Express is in the credit card business, and not just for people who already have the company's flagship charge card, as was the case with the first Optima launch.
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While American Express got the customers it wanted, Wachovia Corp. is still fishing for prospects for its latest credit card product, Prime for Life.
In a recent interview, Beverly B. Wells, president of Wachovia Bank Card Services Inc., said, "We thought we would have more accounts" by now.
Prime for Life, launched at the beginning of this year, has generated 25,000 accounts so far.
Ms. Wells attributes the disappointing response rate to the product's name.
It appears that consumers associated Prime for Life with having debt for the rest of their lives, said Ms. Wells, who responded by renaming the card to Prime All the Time.
Ms. Wells maintains that the $88 annual fee that accompanies the attractive interest rate, set permanently at the prime rate, has not been a stumbling block at all.
Wachovia has been targeting "smart borrowers" who understand the cost savings associated with low interest rates, said Ms. Wells.
Prime All the Time's companion product, which has a lower annual fee and a rebate feature, has captured just 1,000 accounts, but Wachovia is marketing the product primarily in its branches.
The Prime Rebate plan offers Wachovia's prime plus 3.9% interest rate with a $28 annual fee. At the end of the year, if a customer would have saved more by applying for Prime All the Time, Wachovia will rebate the difference in interest rate charges.