Retail Credit Cards and Department Store Credit Cards

Many retail stores want to offer you a line of credit. But before you sign up to get 10% off your purchase and a free umbrella, you need to understand the effect that such cards can have on your credit both good and bad.

If you apply for a {fill in name of store here} credit card today, you will receive a 15% discount on your purchase.

What diehard shopper wouldn't be tempted?

Lately it seems that every consumer purchase is prefaced with an offer to apply for a credit card. Not Visas or MasterCards, but cards issued with a retail stores name on them for exclusive use at that store. J.C. Penney was one of the first retail stores to issue credit cards back in 1958. Since then, retail companies have recognized the profit to be made by operating their own credit card operations, as well as the instant punch in the arm to their marketing efforts. You've heard the spiel from the Gap, Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Dillard's, Target, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Meijer's, Banana Republic, Sak's, Nordstrom's, even Bloomingdales, and the list goes on and on.

The marketing hook?Discounts for the stores merchandise along with other perks.

As with most things there are pros and cons for consumers:

Pros

    Department store credit cards can be a good way to establish credit. The requirements for retail cards are often less stringent than for major credit cards. Gerri Detweiler, founder of DebtConsolidationRX.com and author of The Ultimate Credit Guide agrees. A selective consumer can establish a positive credit history with retail store credit cards, which usually have lower credit limits and are therefore easier to obtain.

    Pros

  • Special financing offers. Applying for a retail card sometimes helps you score same-as-cash deals for larger purchases such as computers, appliances or furniture, allowing you to pay smaller monthly installments with no interest for a period usually 6 or 12 months. Just be sure to pay off the full amount before the finance charge-free period comes to an end, advises Detweiler. If your payment is not made in full by the same-as-cash period end, finance charges will retroactively apply from the date of purchase.
  • Special savings events. Beyond introductory discounts, special savings events and sales just for the store credit card holders, there are often rewards programs where you can earn points for every dollar you spend on the store credit card, then cash the points in for, well, store credit.

Cons

  • High-flying APRs.  The interest rates for department store credit cards are typically higher than major credit cards, usually found resting in the upper teens. The perks don't always outweigh the finance charges, therefore, if you can't discipline yourself to pay off your balance every month, retail store credit cards are not for you!
  • Open lines of credit affect credit history. The store clerk tells you that if you open up a line of credit today, you can get one year free financing on that sofa you just purchased! Well then, sign me up! you say. Before you know it, you can have 15 lines of credit open; often, you've only used these cards once or twice to take advantage of the perks and you soon forget you had them in the first place.

Detweiler says to be very selective when applying for retail cards: Limit yourself to one or two cards applied for during a six to twelve month period. Any more is considered a risk factor on your credit report.

Its a Balancing Act

So now that you know the pros and cons, how do you figure out if a retail store card is worth its weight? As always, you need to do a little math.

Find out what the APR rate is and add in any fees or minimum purchases required by the card. Then compare that with your potential store savings to make sure everything balances out. Are you going to have to spend more money than you normally would in order to earn the perks and discounts?

As an example: a typical card might have an APR of 19.80%, no annual fee and no minimum purchase requirements. The perks include 10% off your first in-store purchase and 10% off your first on-line purchase. You also get free shipping on all on-line purchases over $100. For every dollar that you spend in the store you earn one point; when you earn 350 points, you automatically receive a $15 reward card.

That's a nice set of incentives. That's also a lot of debt that you're putting on a credit card in the name of discounted merchandise.

If this is a store that you frequently shop and you plan to pay off your credit card balance each month, you can enjoy these perks in the clear. However, if you carry a balance on your card, don't even bother because a 19.80% APR on $350 trumps a $15 reward card every time.

Performing math is a lot to ask when you're at the checkout counter with an armload of new purchases. But never sign on for a card without reviewing the fine print and finding out what you are signing up for. It might take away some of the fun of a shopping splurge, but in the long run you'll be happier because you safeguarding your credit and the benefits of having good credit the ability to purchase a new home, for example. These things will bring you smiles down the road more so than will 10% off that hip outfit from the Gap which won't be so hip in a few months anyway.

Please visit our card cards section to review our current ratings of various retail credit card offers.