American Express Co. is eliminating paper statements to potentially millions of corporate cardholders, whether they like it or not.
Banks and billers have been encouraging customers for years to get their monthly statements online rather than through the mail, saying that shutting off the paper can provide significant savings — for the bankers and billers, that is.
But consumers have been reluctant to make the switch, and analysts say financial companies have done a poor job of convincing their customers that they would get any benefit from opting out of paper statements.
Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman for the New York financial company, said the new policy applies to some customers of its global commercial card unit, which serves large businesses and has 7.1 million cardholders worldwide.
She would not say how many of the unit's customers would be affected.
Amex told some of the affected clients this month that it would shut off paper statements beginning with the June 4 billing cycle, and it plans to introduce the policy gradually to different groups of customers progressively through the year, Wasserman said. "By yearend everybody" who is affected by the new policy "will be notified."
Though the United States is the company's largest market, this is a global effort, she said. "We're doing this outside the United States as well as inside the United States, but not in every market." Some countries require issuers to provide regular statements by mail.
Amex's Open small-business division and its personal card unit will continue to mail statements, though cardholders can volunteer to receive them online only.
The company is offering no incentives to the affected clients, but Wasserman said it has received little resistance from its corporate customers.
Wasserman said Amex will make exceptions to the no-paper rule, if for example, cardholders require paper statements to invoice their clients, or they lack Internet access.
And the new system does not require online payment, although AmEx encourages it. A cardholder can still write a check and mail it in, Wasserman said.
She would not say how much money Amex expects to save by eliminating the statements.
Regulus Group LLC, a Napa, Calif., billing unit of the Mumbai technology company 3i Infotech Ltd., said such savings can be substantial. One utility company cut 38% from its statement production costs, including postage and physical production expenses, when it stopped sending paper statements to customers who had agreed to receive their bills online.
Tracy Dalton, the product development manager at Regulus, said the poor economy has prompted some companies to consider charging consumers statement fees as an incentive to switch to electronic billing.
"That's the only way they can get their ROI," she said.
Nevertheless, Dalton expressed some surprise that Amex was focusing the mandatory shift on its corporate clients.
"You have a lot more latitude with the consumer," she said. "With a corporate — that's bold."
Financial services companies typically have taken a voluntary approach to electronic statements, encouraging but not requiring their customers to go paperless. Several banking companies offer paperless deposit accounts for customers who agree to bank only over the Internet and not to write checks. As an incentive for opening the accounts, they offer customers higher interest rates.
However, other large card issuers expressed little interest this week in following Amex's lead in eliminating statements altogether.
Carol B. Barkley, the marketing director in U.S. Bancorp's corporate payments unit, said her company encourages people to receive their statements online, but it does not require them to do so.
"We have some clients who feel the need to have paper. We do not mandate paperless billing, and as far as I'm concerned, we never will," she said.
A spokeswoman for Citigroup Inc. said, "We believe in giving our customers a choice."
James Van Dyke, the founder and president of Javelin Strategy and Research of Pleasanton, Calif., said that few consumers have chosen to eliminate paper statements.
In a survey of 2,300 online heads of household last year, Javelin found that 42% received their primary credit card statement only by mail. By contrast, 13% received it only online, while 29% received it both ways. The remaining 16% did not receive a monthly card bill, either because they did not have a credit card or they did not use it.
Issuers could gain significant savings by eliminating paper statements for customers who get their bills both ways, he said. "When you cut that paper statement, people revert to the statement they've been getting online."
Eliminating paper statements is good for the environment and can help improve security, he said, but financial services companies have not done a good job of explaining these benefits to consumers.
"I don't know of anybody who has hit that message crisply, one-two," Van Dyke said. "I think there's much more that can be done."