If the raised numbers on the front of your credit card are wearing as thin as your patience every time you try to read them, things could soon be looking up.
Makers of payment cards are increasingly issuing new chip cards with a decidedly different look: the stamped-in card numbers of yore are giving way to sleeker, laser-printed digits that are expected to nearly double the useful life of payment cards.
George Wehbe, head of Omaha business operations for Atlanta-based First Data, said that’s a change banks and other issuers should find as agreeable as their customers will.
“On a laser card, the numbers don’t disappear” when cardholders repeatedly insert and remove cards from their wallets over time, Wehbe said. “Issuers have to replace traditional embossed cards after about two or three years, and we think the laser-printed cards will last about five years.”
Considering the relatively steep costs associated with replacing chip cards versus those with just a magnetic stripe, savings could add up in a hurry: First Data officials said it costs about 30 cents for a basic card, while a newer chip card costs about $1.30.
Some “high net worth” cards that are made of metal stock can cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Those cards typically are reserved for big spenders. Some of those cards can carry initiation fees that routinely run into the thousands of dollars, while others even require an invitation.
Historically, laser-printing names and numbers onto those exclusive cards has been more common, Wehbe said. But as competition for cardholders of all kinds has ramped up, issuers have fought to make their cards more desirable.
American Express made a splash last week when it announced plans to revamp the perks associated with its Platinum card, which was the original premium card offered to consumers. New bonuses include $200 in Uber credits and $200 for airline fees like checked-baggage charges.
And Chase in late 2016 drummed up a furor ahead of the debut of its Chase Sapphire Reserve card that reached such a pitch that the company used up a year’s supply of heavier card inventory in about a month, Bloomberg reported. The big draws on that one? A 100,000-point sign-up bonus and triple points for money spent on travel and dining.
For issuers, as Wehbe put it, “It’s all about getting your card to the top of the wallet.”
Industry observers agree.
“The fact that those cards are making a big deal out of the way they are made and the materials they’re made of is just further evidence that card issuers are willing to do whatever they can to help their cards stand out in what is an incredibly competitive market,” said Matt Schultz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.
Spending trends show that the timing couldn’t be better.
Global market research company Euromonitor in September 2016 predicted that last year would be the first in which consumer spending using cards topped cash transactions. In a world where the card appears to be king, getting more mileage out of plastic is vital.
First Data, which employs more than 5,000 in the Omaha area, operates a veritable mint here; a team of about 250 production workers churns out about 100 million cards every year. The heavily secured facility isn’t as much hidden in the city’s northwestern sprawl as it is planted into a suburban office park you could just as easily find in suburbia.
It’s from here, the busiest credit- and debit-card manufacturing plant on the continent, that First Data takes blank pieces of plastic as nondescript as the buildings they’re made in and transforms them into enablers of commerce for consumers around the world.
It also has a slightly smaller facility in Virginia, but the company isn’t alone in manufacturing such cards in Omaha.
First National Bank of Omaha has its own history as an early adopter of plastic payments, and the credit card business has long been a cash cow for the largest Nebraska-based bank. Last year the bank reported $640 million worth of interest income from credit cards, up 10 percent from 2015.
It makes its own cards at a smaller facility downtown, but none are laser-printed, yet.
“At this time our card production is around the traditional plastic card with raised numbers,” said First National spokesman Kevin Langin.
The bank does have the ability to imprint numbers onto the fronts of cards, sending them the other way from traditional ones, Langin said, giving them a more distinguished look.
Like card issuers and processors around the country, these and other organizations have stayed busy updating new chip cards in recent years.
The biggest change, of course, has been how the new cards actually work, rather than what is, or is not, on the front of them. Paying with a new card today is more likely to require shoppers to insert cards into a card reader instead of swiping it, as had been done for decades.
The shift, where it has happened, has been sluggish, and in some cases painful.
Cultural anthropologist Bill Maurer said that’s all fairly easy to explain.
“Practices around payments are really durable, and they last over time,” said Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion there.
Even the shift from the old knuckle-buster, which is how embossed card numbers were originally imprinted onto carbon copies of receipts, to numbers encoded onto magnetic strips preserved the continuity of the old gesture.
“That’s very similar to what we do with cash, where we carry it across a physical space and give it to someone,” he said.
Not so with the insertion of chip cards.
And judging by how long humans have utilized coins as a form of currency — Maurer said they’ve been around since 600 to 400 B.C. — maybe the swipe gesture, too, could prove tougher to kill than previously assumed.
“I thought with this new (chip) technology that it would sort of go away, and we would introduce new gestures,” he said. “The jury is still out on what all is happening there.”
Design of credit card digits started as a napkin sketch
The imprint of those boxy, computerized-looking digits on the front of your debit and credit cards is notorious for outlasting the legibility of its gold or silver embossing.
But the origins of the font known as “Farrington B” are undeniably less durable than the billions of plastic payment cards the numeric font graces today.
Engineer David Shepard sketched the first series of those numerals on a napkin in a bar at the Waldorf Astoria New York, the now-deceased inventor’s wife told the New York Times for Shepard’s obituary in late 2007.
Among Shepard’s other pioneering efforts is the technology that introduced interactive voice response, which is what lets callers retrieve stored information via phone by answering “yes” or “no” to automated questions, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.