Facing new competition, AmEx polishes up the Platinum Card

This image provided by American Express shows the company's redesigned platinum credit card. American Express is announcing a new set of features for its Platinum Card, the popular charge card aimed at well-off and frequently traveling customers. Platinum Card customers will get a $200 credit on Uber and the ability to earn five points per dollar on hotels. The card is also getting a redesign and will be issued in stainless steel instead of plastic. (Courtesy of American Express via AP)

NEW YORK — Facing intense competition for its higher-spending customers, American Express is expanding the benefits it offers its high-end Platinum Card members, like a $200 credit on Uber. But those benefits will come with a higher annual fee.

In addition to the Uber benefit, Platinum Card holders will also now be able to earn five points per dollar on hotels, American Express said Thursday. That'll be as of March 30. Popular current benefits, like the $200 airline fee credit, airport lounge access or the five points per dollar spent on airlines, are staying. The annual fee, though, is rising to $550 from $450.

The design of the Platinum Card is also getting a polish. The account number and expiration date will move to the back and the "member since" logo will be slightly larger. The Platinum Card will now be issued in in stainless steel instead of plastic, similar to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card and AmEx's Centurion Card, the invitation-only card for the extremely rich and celebrities.

"It's a suite of new and enhanced benefits that translates into a new Platinum Card for a new generation of customer," said Janey Whiteside, who heads the Platinum Card division at American Express.

Whiteside sees the Uber credit as a perk that will appeal to millennials in particular. "When we looked at who we should partner with, Uber made a lot of sense," Whiteside said. She also noted that it was the first increase in the annual fee on the Platinum Card in 10 years.

American Express effectively created the market for high-end credit cards more than 30 years ago when it introduced the Gold and Platinum Cards. The cards were designed for frequent travelers and well-to-do customers willing to pay substantial annual fees to get access to airport lounges, special events or dedicated customer service. The banks got customers with excellent credit who typically spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on their cards.

But the market AmEx once dominated has become increasingly competitive. Citigroup took the first shot in 2014, redesigning the Citi Prestige Card with help from recently poached AmEx executives — but Prestige never caught as much consumer attention as the Platinum Card. Citi did take a significant chunk of American Express' business last year by taking over the Costco credit card.

The most direct threat to AmEx's hold on the high-end consumer has come from JPMorgan Chase, which launched the Sapphire Reserve Card last year. Even with its $450 annual fee, interest in the card was so hot that Chase ran out of the metal to make the cards within days of launch. The card also attracted lots of interest from millennials, who are not usually a target for high-fee, ultra-premium cards.

"It was a product that could go head-to-head with American Express' Platinum Card and there was some noticeable impact among AmEx's best customers when it was introduced," said Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

AmEx executives clearly took the threat seriously. Roughly 30 percent of AmEx's 2016 revenue came from its U.S. consumer card business, and unlike its major competition, AmEx makes most of its money not on charging interest but on the fees it charges merchants to accept its cards.

Soon after the Sapphire Reserve debuted, AmEx announced an upgrade to its points program for Platinum Card customers, allowing five points per dollar to be earned on airfare instead of one point.

"I'm deeply paranoid about these types of competitive assaults on our customer base," said Doug Buckminster, head of the global consumer services group at AmEx. Speaking to investors this week, he said the company saw a temporary but notable rise in customers calling to cancel their Platinum Cards after the metal Sapphire Reserve was launched.

But AmEx says there's still robust interest in the Platinum Card. Executives cite surveys showing that customers are more interested in benefits like airport lounge access and concierge services than points programs or travel credits. The company ended 2016 with a record number of Platinum Card holders, Whiteside said, but declined to give specifics.

American Express will also open two airport lounges this year, in Hong Kong and Philadelphia.


Ken Sweet covers banks and consumer financial issues for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.

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