Shoppers normally should resist stores' credit cards, a consumers group says.
It's a standard question at the sales counter these days. Before the clerk rings up your merchandise, she says: "Would you like to apply for a store credit card? You get 10 percent off any purchase today."
The line -- in some variation -- is repeated sale after sale by clerks in department stores trying to pump up their brand, spur sales and generate revenue from the cards.
Retailers, whether specialists such as women's clothier Talbots or big-box chains such as Target, have long held that in-store credit cards are important in building a bond with their customers.
The cards, which evolved from the "charge plate" buy-now-pay-later system stores used in the 1950s, have been around for decades.
The recent growing popularity of debit and credit cards has prompted stores to work hard to keep their in-house charge cards viable by offering discounts and "loyalty programs" and by promoting the cards.
"Customers that have our card tend to be our more loyal customers," Talbots spokeswoman Betsy Thompson said. "It is a great way to know who they are and what they are buying."
Talbots customers who sign up for a store credit card receive 10 percent off any purchase during their birthday month, first notice on sales and what Talbots calls "appreciation dividends," a $25 store credit for every $500 they spend in a given year.
In 2001, customers spent about $1.7 million on their Talbots cards, which carry an interest rate of 21.6 percent.
Target Corp., which operates its store credit cards for Target stores and the company's West Coast and Midwest department stores, Mervyn's and Marshall Field's, through a bank owned by the corporation, gives special offers to cardholders.
All told, Target Corp. sold $2.6 billion worth of merchandise on credit in 2001, according to the company's most recent annual report.
But compare the Target in-store charge card with its 21 percent interest rate to the 18-month-old Target Visa with its 9.9 percent to 18.9 percent rate.
"They are different types of cards for different uses," Target spokesman Douglas Kline said.
The Target Visa, which can be used anywhere Visa is accepted, allows the corporation to collect fees from other retailers who accept the card in addition to the interest it collects from cardholders.
The fees and other factors allow the national cards, such as Visa, to charge customers lower interest rates, according to company reports and consumer advocates.
A random and very unscientific poll of shoppers at a Target in Largo, Md., did not bode well for Target and other stores pitching their credit cards.
"I go to a store because there's something I want," said a woman waiting to have a prescription filled. "Its only purpose is for the store, and I don't shop at Target that much. I just use Visa."
"I don't get a card unless it offers a special discount -- 10 percent off or something. I use them if there is an incentive," said a guy picking through greeting cards.
Susan Lewis, a 30-year-old single mother, said that even with the special officers, "it's not worth it."
Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, said that for many, Lewis is right. Discounts can be outweighed by the higher interest rates charged by department stores.
Brobeck said he would recommend shoppers consider cards only at stores that offer deep discounts (more than 10 percent) or special awards programs reserved for cardholders.
"From a consumer perspective, consider taking advantage of special deals that make sense, such as a substantial discount, but pay off those balances in full every month to avoid interest charges," Brobeck said.
"If there are not those specific benefits, don't accept the cards, because there is no reason to and there is some risk."
One risk: Say yes too often in a short period of time and the credit reporting agencies may downgrade you for too much activity, Brobeck said.
Then there's the inherent temptation of buying now and paying later that causes some to overspend.
"Consumers spend less money at the shopping mall paying cash than with check, and less money paying with a check than with credit cards," Brobeck said.