At first blush, U.S. Bank's new Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite card has all the markings of a "me too" card, coming on the heels of similar efforts by JPMorgan Chase, Citi and American Express to offer a high-end credit card for the well-heeled willing to pay a high fee for concierge services.
But there are some key differences to the Minneapolis-based bank's approach that observers say make it distinct. The biggest turns on how customers earn the coveted triple points per dollar spent. Other cards in the space tie it mostly to restaurants and travel. The Altitude Reserve, which will be offered starting May 1, also pays triple points on travel purchases, but then offers triple points on mobile purchases on Apple Pay, Android Pay, Samsung Pay or Microsoft Wallet.
The idea is to put the decision-making in the hands of the consumer, said John Steward, president of retail payment solutions for U.S. Bank. Rather than earn them at restaurants, a customer might choose to earn them at a bike shop they often visit, he said.
"The idea is to keep 'me' in control," Steward said.
The adoption of mobile payments has been slower than banks and observers expected it to be. Many believe it to be the future of payments and that is why several of the largest banks are angling to snag a top-of-wallet position. Still, the industry has struggled with figuring out how to determine the best way to spark adoption. Tying rewards to it has emerged as the best way to do it and U.S. Bank’s strategy with the Altitude Reserve card is among the most ambitious.
“This is one of the more aggressive attempts we’ve seen to juice mobile spending through carrots,” said Peter Wannemacher, a senior analyst at Forrester.
Wannemacher said he expects the card to do well, but won’t achieve market dominance. Essentially, people who use it may love it, but others might not see the appeal. The challenge is that removing friction matters more to consumers than rewards, he said. And currently, there is not a lot of friction in using a card.
“It’s the convenience quotient,” Wannemacher said. “Using a card is the way we’ve done it for the past four decades and that is really hard to overcome.”
Still, Steward said the customers the bank is targeting for the card wanted the ability to earn and redeem rewards via their mobile devices.
“We heard from customers that they do everything from their phone and asked for a rewards experience that capitalizes on the control consumers have from managing everything in one place,” Steward said. “So we designed a card that both allows for earning and redemption via mobile.”
The other distinction for the Altitude Reserve card is who can get it: only customers with other accounts at U.S. Bank. A noncustomer interested in the offering could open a new account, but they could wait up to 35 days before becoming eligible.
That difference is important and could help lower acquisition costs, observers said. JPMorgan’s fourth-quarter earnings took a hit related to the acquisition costs of Sapphire Reserve, but U.S. Bank hopes to avoid a similar fate.
“We would anticipate being able to utilize this type of product to get better penetration with respect to” existing wealth and private clients, Terry Dolan, U.S. Bank's chief financial officer, said in an interview.
"The approach that we’ll take will be a bit different than the Sapphire card, as an example, because we’re not necessarily going to chase volume through huge rewards,” Dolan added. “I know that JPMorgan views that as the right strategy, and who knows, only time will tell.”
It is essentially a cross-selling strategy and one that is going to set the card apart, says Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors.
The targeting of existing customers “significantly” lowers acquisition costs. Additionally, this product is likely to appeal primarily to millennials, who are beginning to shift from using debit cards to credit cards. And lastly, interchange fees on credit cards are higher than debit cards.
“At first, this reminded me of the movie 'Spinal Tap' — ‘This amp goes to 11,’ “ Shevlin said. “But it sounds like they closely studied the economics of it and it seems like a smart move on their part.”
Kristin Broughton contributed to this article.