A card with few benefits ranked highest in J.D. Power and Associates' latest survey of customer satisfaction with basic and gold credit cards.

The ranking shows that Chase Manhattan Bank's Wal-Mart card edged out the American Express Optima card and several other bank-issued products, underscoring a key finding of the annual quality survey: Consumers view customer service as more important than pricing.

The key feature of the Wal-Mart card is its 14.48% interest rate. It does not come with the rewards and rebates identified with the Discover card or cobranding offers like Chase's deal with Toys 'R' Us, which did well in the reward-card category.

Largely due to Chase's perceived high level of service to Wal-Mart customers, J.D. Power assigned it an index score of 104. Optima came in at 103. Seven other banks-including Citibank and the AT&T Universal organization it acquired this year-equaled or bettered the average score of 98.

Chase distinguished itself in other ways. Its Toys 'R' Us product, inherited in a portfolio acquisition from Bank of New York Co., scored 105, one of only three that exceeded the average score of 104 in the reward-card category. Two programs from Dean Witter, Discover & Co.'s Novus Services subsidiary tied at 106: Discover and Private Issue.

Chase also ranked first in the hot new category of platinum cards (see related article).

Back in the rewards field, the Chase/Shell Oil card did not do so well, falling from one of the highest scores last year to "below average"-a rating on which J.D. Power does not elaborate.

The Citibank-AAdvantage card for American Airlines frequent fliers, which like Chase/Shell was well above average last year among people who generally paid their card balances off in full, also fell to below average. High-profile offers like the American Express/Delta SkyMiles, GE Rewards, General Motors, and United Airlines Mileage Plus also failed to make the grade.

On balance, Chase should be buoyed as it tries to take advantage of the heft it acquired in the Chemical Banking Corp. merger to rise from its current No. 4 position in card receivables. Chase officials have asserted a desire to aim for Citicorp's No. 1 position.

But there are critics who question J.D. Power's methodology and what it says about the overall card business.

"I don't believe that customer service is more important than pricing," said Bruce Brittain, president of Brittain Associates, an Atlanta firm that conducts similar consumer surveys. He also contends it is more meaningful to "compare airline programs with other airline programs or cash-back cards with other cash-back cards."

For the 1998 report, J.D. Power surveyed 12,082 consumers in April and May. Responses indicated that pricing issues are third in importance, behind customer service and card servicing, and the reputation of the financial institution.

Other variables contributing to the index scores included reward features, credit lines, and payment policies such as grace periods.

Citibank was a close second to Chase in platinum cards, with a 105 score versus Chase's 106. The industry average for platinum was 100 and six did better than that.

Citibank was two points behind Chase in the gold and basic category, with a score of 102.

Andrew March, director of financial services for J.D. Power in Agoura Hills, Calif., said that as successful as Chase's Wal-Mart card has been because of its low interest rate, "if you compete only on price, you are going to have high attrition."

There are more than 1.5 million Wal-Mart accounts. People who transfer a balance can keep a 9.9% introductory rate until they finish paying off the transferred debt.

But there are more competitively priced products, particularly a number of fixed 9.9% offers, said James L. Accomando, president of Fairfield, Conn.-based Accomando Consulting Inc.

"There are many more cobranded programs that offer better value and pricing," Mr. Accomando said. Is the survey "indicative that this is the best card or is it indicative of the methodology and sampling" of J.D. Power? Mr. Accomando asked.

"To be able to grow as Chase has, but to continue to provide a high level of satisfaction, is a notable achievement," Mr. March said.

Citibank will likely focus on service quality issues as it digests the $14 billion AT&T Universal Card Services portfolio it acquired in April, Mr. March said. AT&T ranked first in Power's differently structured 1995 and 1996 surveys and has since dropped several places. Its 102 in both the platinum and gold/basic categories was still among the leaders.

Wachovia Bank, noted for low interest rates, dropped dramatically from second last year among people who carry balances to below average this year. Mr. Marsh attributed the dip to poor customer service.

Among the monoline card issuers, only MBNA America Bank scored above average-in both platinum and gold/basic.

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