Bank of America Corp. is backing away from a much-publicized decision to add annual fees to some existing accounts — though not abandoning it completely.
"There are no plans or no strategy next year for a rollout necessarily, it's just something we're continuing to look at," Andy Rowe, B of A's strategy executive for global card services, said in an interview Tuesday.
"The test has concluded. It was a one-time mailing to a very small set of customers that was sent out a month ago."
B of A made headlines in October when it informed what it called a very small percentage — 0.5% — of its cardholders that it was instituting an annual fee of $29 to $99 on their accounts.
The affected customers (or at least those who have not opted out and closed their accounts) will start paying the fees next year.
The decision led to something of a consumer backlash, even beyond the affected cardholder population.
"We've received more calls from customers on this topic who were not included in this test than on those who were in the test," Rowe said.
Bank of America was hardly alone in its efforts to add or revive card fees.
This summer, Citigroup Inc. also implemented annual fees on some accounts, and other issuers are experimenting with different ways to add fees to existing accounts in the wake of the new credit card law's restrictions on how issuers can vary their pricing.
Fifth Third Bancorp of Cincinnati, for example, has started adding "inactivity fees" to some accounts.
Despite the consumer backlash over B of A's annual fees, Rowe called the test valuable.
By adding annual fees to some accounts, he said, Bank of America hoped to see what type of customer would be willing to pay such a fee, and for what kind of products.
The $2.25 trillion-asset Charlotte company applied the fee to "a variety of customers who had different value propositions with us," to see "what were they willing to pay for," he said. "Were they willing to pay an annual fee to keep that, or change to a nonfee product? … That fair-value exchange, that's what we're trying to figure out from the test."
Though most issuers have raised consumer ire by increasing pricing and adding fees ahead of the law's restrictions, B of A has also tried to court consumers with "simple" and "clear" products.
In October, it introduced the BankAmericard Basic Visa, which comes with one variable interest rate for all cardholders and all types of transactions, one flat late-payment fee of $39 and a single page of disclosures.
And on Monday, B of A said it would send 40 million cardholders its one-page "Clarity Commitment," which it calls a "clear and simple" summary of B of A credit card rates and fees. (B of A will send the statement to all U.S. holders of its branded cards, but not to customers of financial institutions for which it issues cards as an agent bank.)
"What customers really want to understand is, what are my rates, under what conditions could my rate change, tell me about my payment," Rowe said.
"This is the continued evolution of us trying to respond to our customers."
The one-page summary for cardholders follows a similar effort that B of A started offering its mortgage customers in April; that version of the clarity commitment offered a one-page summary of the estimated total costs of a home loan.
B of A also solicited outside feedback on its new card terms summary from organizations including the Center for Financial Services Innovation, the nonprofit affiliate of ShoreBank Corp. in Chicago.
Kimberly Gartner, the center's associate director, said by e-mail that the commitment "provides clear, simple information that is important to help credit-card holders understand key features and fees associated with their credit card product. It is a positive step by Bank of America and one important tool for helping its consumers effectively manage their financial lives."