MasterCard International is planning a new use for its data base of information about card transactions: selling it to retailers for marketing purposes.
MasterCard said the service does not violate privacy principles because it does not identify individual consumers. Instead, it gathers anonymous details about MasterCard purchases and shapes them into illustrations of consumer buying patterns.
Through a joint venture with a Florida market research firm, MasterCard is asking high-volume merchants to buy annual subscriptions to the service, Merchant Advisor.
The venture is intended as a revenue generator, MasterCard officials say. The association hopes to do what many banks have been attempting: to harness their customer data bases and turn the richness into profits.
MasterCard's new subsidiary, Transactional Data Solutions, will charge large retailers $75,000 to $150,000 a year for a customized report that analyzes transactions nationally. Smaller retailers will pay $3,000 to $5,000 per store for a version that only includes transactions in their state or locality.
"In the retail business, there really isn't a syndicated information service that helps companies understand how they're doing in the their market," said William E. Engel, president and chief executive officer of Transactional Data Solutions, based in Purchase, N.Y.
Given how guarded consumers have become about answering telephone polls, the transaction data is a way "to see exactly what consumers are doing instead of having to ask them," Mr. Engel said.
Visa U.S.A. has tested a free version of this type of service, but shelved the project amid lack of merchant interest and privacy concerns, a spokesman said. The program, Personalized Visa Rewards, offered retailers data about certain types of shoppers.
It did not raise an outcry about privacy, but it seemed to be "a sensitive issue for cardholders," said Lorne Fisher, a Visa spokesman.
"This information is understandably extremely valuable, and the issue comes up of how you handle it appropriately in cardholders' minds," Mr. Fisher said. "We're trying to determine the best way to move forward with this kind of marketing."
Citibank, now a part of Citigroup, also scrapped a similar experiment. In the early 1990s, the bank had tried to capture data using the bar code system in supermarkets, but the cost of the program was too large to justify its returns.
Other companies continue to make a business of selling data base information. First Data Corp.'s Usave program helps merchants identify customers who should receive discount coupons. HNC Software specializes in products for customer segmentation for credit card issuers.
There is increasing recognition that credit card data bases offer "a wealth of information and knowledge," said Mahmood Sher-Jan, industry manager for private label cards at HNC. "The clear message that is being sent to the community is that you really have to improve your use of technology. There is no room for marginal players."
The MasterCard venture aims to "create a new discipline" of market research by cross-referencing MasterCard transaction data with demographic research compiled by Symmetrical Resources Inc. of Deerfield Beach, Fla., the card association's partner.
Mr. Engel, a statistician, is co-founder of Symmetrical Resources. His company owns Simmons Market Research, which does an annual sample of 20,000 households nationally-what media they watch, what brands they buy.
Mr. Engel, who now works full-time for Transactional Data Solutions, approached MasterCard a few years ago about linking their data bases, because "we were looking for a better way to measure how people behave."
Using Merchant Advisor, Mr. Engel said, a department store could find out how its sales compared to competitors.' Or, if the store wanted to attract a certain demographic group-women age 25 to 35, for example-it could use the MasterCard data to find out what they buy, and the Simmons research to find out what media they watch-and thus determine where advertising dollars should be spent.
The data could also be used to develop loyalty programs, Mr. Engel said. For example, if a retailer learned that a large percentage of its customers were frequent airline travelers, it could create a relevant offering for them.
"There is just a wealth of information and analysis that pours out of this," Mr. Engel said.
Mr. Engel compared the service to ACNielsen and Nielsen Media Research, which monitor television viewing for media companies, and Information Resources Inc., which tracks grocery sales for packaged goods companies.
The slice of information captured by MasterCard is particularly relevant for merchants because it describes spending patterns, said Greg Mazzanobile, chief operating officer of Transactional Data Solutions.
The data gathered is "not based on income and geography," he said, adding, "Two neighbors could have the same demographics, but one is a saver, and one is a spender."
Mallory Duncan, legal counsel to the National Retail Federation, said the service "sounds like something that could help retailers match their customer desires better."
He called the program "a good use of data," and one that was set up so that it did not raise red flags. "There's certainly a potential for privacy concerns from the consumer or the merchant standpoint, but they appear to have addressed those issues."
Neither MasterCard or Transactional Data Solutions will know the names or other identifying details of the consumers whose transactions are being scrutinized, much less pass them along to customers. Retailers will only be able to view information about themselves, not specific competitors.
Privacy is "our greatest concern," said Mr. Mazzanobile, who joined MasterCard's business development office three years ago after working at Dow Jones.
Mr. Mazzanobile said the information being sold represents "aggregate consumer spending," and "paints a picture on a big level. It will tell you, for instance, that 18- to 25-year-old men shop in this manner in this store."
He added, "It's not a direct marketing tool. We're not in the business of selling names and addresses."
Mr. Engel and Mr. Mazzanobile introduced the service last week at a National Retail Federation show. Although major retailers are the intended clients, the first to sign up is an advertising agency, they said.
At first, customers will receive information quarterly, on CD-ROM. Eventually, the company hopes to provide monthly updates, available on the Internet.
The data is "not just a snapshot," Mr. Mazzanobile said. "It's an ongoing picture of what's going on."
John C. Grund, principle at First Annapolis Consulting of Linthicum, Md., said the venture may face problems signing up clients, since most retailers already do business with established market research firms.
But merchants may see the transactional data as a bonus, he said. "Target marketing and data base marketing are quite the rage," Mr. Grund said. "Clearly there's a niche and there's value."
One concern Mr. Grund voiced was that "the service is just limited to MasterCard transactions, which might not be the majority of total transactions."
Mr. Engel said MasterCard cardholders "very much reflect the population of creditworthy people." They "look like the population of the United States. We are not biased toward high- or low-income people."
Mr. Engel also defended the fact that the service does not track cash or check transactions. "We find that cash and credit card purchases move along the same cycles," he said. "Credit card volumes and credit card sales are nice surrogates for total sales."
William Adcock, chairman of Synergistics Research Corp. of Atlanta, said stale data could limit the usefulness of the MasterCard product.
"I've had a card for 30 years, and I haven't supplied any updated information," he said.
Even so, Mr. Adcock said Merchant Advisor sounded like a good product. "This is something merchants have wanted a long time."