To many industry executives, placing customer photographs on credit cards was a good idea that never really caught fire.
But a handful of large banks still do it, and they have recently been joined by PNC Bank Corp. The Pittsburgh-based bank began issuing photo credit cards in 19 New Jersey branches in January, and said applications have tripled in those branches since then.
While some bankers who have experimented with photo cards may point out their high costs and dubious benefits, PNC is among the banks singing their praises.
"We feel it's something that differentiates ourself in the customer network in southern New Jersey," said Edward Seaver, vice president of marketing for PNC.
Customers "definitely feel the product adds a level of security," Mr. Seaver said. And PNC "trained branch personnel to turn the picture event into a sales event."
If all continues to go well, PNC later this year plans to enlarge the program to include all of its 800 branches in six states.
Like other banks issuing photo credit cards, PNC is looking to boost account generation, reduce fraud, and cross-sell other retail products, like mutual funds and home equity loans. PNC has $3.8 billion in credit card receivables, according to the Nilson Report, which ranks it as the 20th largest issuer.
Photo cards arrived with much fanfare in the early 1990s, with Citicorp leading the way. Over the years, the high cost of taking the photographs and affixing them to the plastic limited the number of interested banks. Photo credit cards are more costly to produce, and can add an extra $2 to $5 for each card, depending on volume.
James L. Accomando, president, Accomando Consulting Inc., Fairfield, Conn., called photo cards "a fantastic I.D. tool, if you can overcome the expense and logistical issues."
But he predicted few banks would follow PNC's lead. "I don't see it becoming a trend," Mr. Accomando said. "It's not like every bank is out there clamoring to get the card, especially when there are so many other security features out there."
Among other problems, banks have debated whether they need to take the photographs themselves. And while some customers consider the photos an amenity, others complain the picture ruins the "look" of the card.
Still, a handful of large banks have held on to the service. Citibank, BankAmerica Corp. and Banc One Corp. are cheerleaders of the technology.
"Fraud losses on our photo cards are less than half than on those without photos," said Betty Reiss, a BankAmerica spokeswoman. The bank takes photographs in branches, and allows customers to submit their own.
PNC is requiring customers in its New Jersey pilot to visit a branch to get the card. PNC is looking to recoup the expenses in various ways.
"There's additional cost, but the photo credit cards offset that cost with increases in response rates, decreases in fraud, and decreases in balance attrition," Mr. Seaver said.
The bank also believes the novelty of the card will appeal to customers who may not have seen them being offered by other banks. PNC is looking to offer the service in its footprint states: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Polaroid Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., lured PNC to the darkroom in 1996, when the bank began offering the card in four branches. Polaroid, which supplies photo-card technology to ten banks, has touted the ability of bank representatives to cross-sell its products.
Polaroid markets the concept as the "magic minute" during which the customer waits for the picture to be developed, and the banker can make a sales pitch.
"It's the branch representative's opportunity to explore what other financial needs they may have in the next three to six months," Mr. Seaver said.
Sharon Rice, director of marketing and sales of Polaroid Corp.'s financial cards division, said the photo card gives financial institutions a competitive edge. "Today, it's a fight for a share of the wallet," Ms. Rice said. "The photo card has performed well on that standard."