In the world of credit card marketing, where consumers may value card design almost as much as low rates, gimmicks sometimes work. One that has lasted longer than you might have guessed is the LensCard, with a flat plastic magnifier built in to help farsighted cardholders to read their bills.

Alan Finkelstein, the 50-year-old inventor of the patented product, said nearly a million LensCards have either been issued or ordered by issuers since they became available in 1998. Chase Manhattan Bank held exclusive rights, but the contract expired last year, so four other top 10 credit card issuers have also begun offering the card, he said.

Mr. Finkelstein, the chief executive officer of LensCard LLC, said he came up with the idea in a restaurant.

"When it came time to pay the bill, my friend took out a magnifying lens and a credit card. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was looking at the bill." Eureka, the LensCard.

The friend was Jack Nicholson, one of whose films Mr. Finkelstein helped produce.

According to Mr. Finkelstein, Capital One Financial Corp. rolled out its LensCard product in April. A spokeswoman for the Falls Church, Va., company said the card does well when marketed to customers over "a certain age" who buy eye-care products. So far, she said, the LensCard has attracted 15,000 to 20,000 cardholders.

Banks in Canada and Australia also issue the cards now, and European, Asian, and Latin American banks have expressed interest, Mr. Finkelstein said.

Mr. Finkelstein said he has also succeeded in making smart LensCards. To make room for the microchip, he explained, the lens had to be moved to a different section of the card. In the fall, he said, he will begin promoting the product in Europe and Asia, where a smart card market already exists.

In 1990, before the first lens cards were even manufactured, Chase Manhattan Bank had already agreed to issue them, he said. It took seven years to resolve various glitches, such as getting terminals to read the cards and manufacturers to make them. Though the lens takes up only a small section of the card's surface (one and one-eighth by three-eighths of an inch), card readers at the time could recognize only opaque cards.

"No one was able to produce the card," Mr. Finkelstein said. "I had learn to how to make it. From the printing, laminating, to the actual materials, the adhesive, everything had to be reformulated and reconfigured."

Even now, LensCard LLC, which has offices in New York and Los Angeles, has to license specially designed equipment and issue certain specifications to the manufacturers. Mr. Finkelstein would not say how much it costs to make the card, but he said it was very little compared to what issuers can save through reduced attrition and higher response rates.

Initially, Chase placed considerable confidence in the product line, relying on market research that showed the card would be popular with customers over 39. A Chase executive said in April 2000 that response rates to LensCard offers were twice the average when mailed to the right demographic niche - "people over 40 who made eye-care purchases and frequented restaurants on a regular basis."

Such a profile is easy enough to extrapolate from a customer's credit card statements. "An issuer can look through the transaction records, search the database for 'LensCrafters,' and get a list of customers who shpped there," said Michael Auriemma, the president of Auriemma Consulting Group Inc. of Westbury, N.Y., who has been helping to sell the LensCard product to issuers.

But Richard J. Srednicki, the head of Chase Manhattan Bank's credit card business, said the Chase LensCard is not exactly a hot item. "We've probably got a pretty big store of those lens cards," he said in an interview when being profiled last month by American Banker. "I don't think I've ever met anybody who owned one, except somebody internal."

Mr. Auriemma said LensCards are profitable and, moreover, that Chase continues to issue them. (Chase currently markets the lens as a free optional feature on its platinum card.) But he acknowledges that the concept may not be immediately compelling. "A lot of people dismissed the idea when they first heard it. I did. I thought it was silly and not going to take hold."

He changed his mind, he said, when told that attrition rates for lens cards accounts are less than half the industry average, which is around 11%. Customers interested in the product also tend to spend more, and the lens makes them pull out that card the most.

This is not just a novelty act, Mr. Finkelstein insisted. There are a lot of aging baby boomers out there, most of them wear reading glasses, and they could use a lens card, he said.

"I think sometimes gimmicks have a life, but it's not as long as the life of something that is useful," he said. "American Express Blue is great-looking, but I don't know how long that will be an attraction." On the other hand, "every year people are turning 40."


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