Costco Dropped AmEx and Now Only Takes Visa. The Result Is a Gigantic Mess.
Costco Dropped AmEx and Now Only Takes Visa. The Result Is a Gigantic Mess.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
When Costco began transitioning from American Express to Visa as its exclusive credit card partner in June, delays and confusion had customers threatening to cancel their memberships.
Now, two months later, some Costco members say that major problems remain—and that Citi, the card issuer, and Costco aren’t doing enough to fix them.
In addition to making Visa the only credit card customers can use at Costco, the transition meant that 11 million of Costco’s 81 million members worldwide with Costco co-branded credit cards had to switch from the TrueEarnings American Express Costco card to the Costco Anywhere Visa.
Initial issues ranged from general confusion to customers not receiving their new cards to difficulty getting a customer service representative on the phone.
Roughly 50 Costco cardholders reached out to Business Insider with stories of their experiences regarding the transition. While a handful described positive experiences, most were horror stories.
Citi CEO Michael Corbat responded to the complaints in July, saying that concerns were “something we can fix in the short order.”
But Costco members are saying the fix never came. Instead, many say they’ve spent hours on the phone over the last two months waiting to talk to customer service representatives.
“I am no longer a Costco member. The credit card fiasco is the reason,” Blaine Holbrook said in an email to Business Insider.
Holbrook said he called Citi and Costco four times in an effort to get Citi to send his wife a functioning cobranded credit card, but that never happened. Finally, Holbrook canceled his Costco membership as well as all of his Citi credit cards.
Citi, which has taken the primary role in managing the transition as the credit card issuer, maintains that the switch has been a success, with nearly 900,000 new applications for credit cards. The angry customers, according to Citi, represent a small minority.
The most common complaints from Costco members involved getting the new credit card. Many said Citi mailed them unauthorized cards, credit cards with incorrect member numbers, or simply nothing at all.
Neikya Morris told Business Insider she made five calls to Citi over two months in an attempt to get a Visa-Costco card. Morris said both she and her husband were deployed to Afghanistan before the issue was resolved.
“I was leaving for Afghanistan the next day and decided that I had had enough of the foolishness and incompetency of this entire process,” she said in an email. “We are loyal customers of Costco, so we continue to hold the membership, but we will rethink this we when return home from our deployments.”
Problems with automatic payments were another issue Costco members reported to Business Insider. In a number of cases, automatic payment setups failed—something some customers didn’t discover until Citi charged interest on unpaid balances or canceled users’ credit cards.
Ernest Garcia, from Amelia Island, Florida, said he was speaking with Citi on the phone two to three times a week for the last three to four weeks trying to figure out an issue with automatic payments. The problem came to a head last weekend when his wife’s card was canceled, despite the company’s promise that that wouldn’t happen.
“She was visiting family in Georgia and took them for lunch. she got the biggest embarrassment anyone could have in front of all these people. She was told by the waiter that Citi/Visa had cancelled her card,” Garcia wrote in an email. “I have been a customer since they were known as Price Club in the 1990s and now Costco and I was getting ready to dump them…I'm retired and life is [too] short to be going through this.”
Other problems include confusion regarding Citi’s website, unexpected pending charges, and roadblocks for international travelers. Certain payments made around the time of the transition seem to have not transferred from American Express to Citi, and other members expressed confusion about the card’s APR.
No matter the cardholders’ initial problems, long wait times to speak with customer service representatives were a common source of frustration. Some customers eventually hung up before they could receive a response.
@Kate_H_Taylor Attempted @Citi call Saturday night. Finally reached some1 Sunday. Card reactivated 2day #fail pic.twitter.com/sVbwLqcZ1Z
Several Costco members reported frustrating back-and-forths with Citi via phone calls, text messages, emails, and mail, lasting anywhere from several days to more than a month. More than one Costco member said the confusion is ongoing and that they would have to wait to receive their next credit card bill to see if Costco had solved the issues.
From Citi’s perspective, however, the transition has been a success—and the company has data to prove it.
Citi told Business Insider that it has received almost 900,000 new applications for the Visa credit card since June 20.
The bank had anticipated some problems because of the magnitude of the switch.
“With a conversion of this magnitude—one of the single largest portfolio conversions in history (11 million cards)—and a brand as beloved as Costco, call volumes were unprecedented,” Jennifer Bombardier, a Citi spokesperson, told Business Insider. “With a portfolio of this size and eight months of pent-up demand during which time we couldn't address questions on the new product or existing accounts as the portfolio was with a different issuer, the call volume was groundbreaking as of June 20.”
After a few days of long wait times, however, Bombardier said that Citi worked to address the problem.
“We have apologized for that inconvenience, and while we had staffed up to prepare for the conversion, we swiftly took additional actions to better meet the demand for the new cards,” she said in an email. “Since then—average call wait times have lessened significantly. For example, this weekend, average call wait times were in the seconds.”
While the average may have been just a few seconds, Costco members told Business Insider they waited for more than half an hour to speak to representatives last week, after Citi erroneously sent emails to Costco members saying their credit card accounts had been closed. (Citi said the incident only affected a small percentage of customers.)
Costco has increased staffing in stores, with about 20 or more employees at each location to help customers sign up for cards and answer questions, Bombardier said. Citi similarly increased staffing at call centers. It alsoup dated its FAQs with information about the switch, and will not apply late fees for payments on Costco accounts on or before the end of July.
A report from Lightspeed Financial Services Group, released in late July, reveals that 5 percent of customers reported a negative experience with Costco surrounding the new card launch. One month after the new cards were issued, 80 percent of customers had used the new card—an experience that 90 percent considered to be positive.
YouGov’s Brand Index data similarly indicates that customer perception of the retailer has been unchanged by the transition.
“We looked at Costco and Visa, and there is absolutely nothing in the data that suggests anything like the ‘disaster9rsquo; this is being portrayed to be,” YouGov spokesperson Drew Kerr told Business Insider. “It9rsquo;s not even statistically significant enough to even merit a significant blip. The data is very accurate at this point, having accumulated it daily.”
In the first three and a half weeks after the transition, $5.7 billion in purchases were made on Citi Costco cards. Taking on the Costco credit cards meant that Citi’s North American credit cards segment grew 13 percent in the second quarter.
Costco did not respond to Business Insider’s request to comment for this article.
The solution—if Costco needs one
In the age of social media, when stories travel quickly online, tales of bad customer service can carry a lot of weight. Lightspeed began its report by noting that media coverage of Costco's credit card transition was primarily negative—even if most members didn’t see it that way.
Costco is a retailer that relies heavily on customer loyalty. Last year, Deutsche Bank cited that loyalty as a reason Costco is “Amazon-proof.9rdquo; And it’s paying off now. Many Costco members critical of the credit card debacle told Business Insider they would continue to shop there.
Hm. Doesn't seem like a "gigantic9quot; mess, more like a moderate-to-minor mess. More.
“It was poorly transitioned, but I think that big companies always allow for fallout and I am sure would offer something to draw the shoppers back in,” Carol Whitaker, a Costco member who encountered issues receiving a credit card, told Business Insider. “It might be a nice gesture if Costco offered something to all their customers as a sign of goodwill that they appreciate their shoppers. Maybe someone should give that CEO a nudge on how to treat his loyal shoppers. Even if it was a free apple pie it would go a long way.”
Kate is a retail reporter for Business Insider. She has previously covered food and franchises for Entrepreneur.