Some thoughts on new benefits for Visa U.S Credit Cardholders

Per Visa:

Visa Inc. (NYSE: V) today announced the addition of Shipt, Skillshare and Sofar Sounds – as exclusive benefits – for Visa’s U.S. Consumer Credit cardholders. Eligible cardholders can now get a free Shipt membership to receive free same-day delivery on groceries and household essentials on orders over $35; boost their creativity through Skillshare’s online learning community; and get access to presale tickets plus be eligible for a free concert ticket while discovering Sofar Sounds’ global community of music lovers.

Specifically, the benefits vary from one product to another. Signature/Infinite credit cardholders will be able to enjoy more benefits from Visa than other cardholders:

ShiptSkillshareSofar Sounds
InfiniteUp to three years of free Shipt membership (normally $99
 per year)
Free membership for three months plus 30% off annual renewalsSeven-day Visa Exclusive Presale to Sofar-presented events, plus a free ticket with each purchase of one or more tickets to a show during the presale window
SignatureThree months of free Shipt membership, then nine months of membership at 50% offFree membership for three months plus 20% off annual renewalsSame as Infinite
OthersOne month of free Shipt membership, then three months of membership at 50% offSame as Infinite but limit two free tickets per year

You may wonder now if you are qualified for Infinite or Signature benefits. Infinite cards are typically high-end premium cards with a significant annual fee such as Chase Sapphire Reserve or U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card. Hence, if you are already paying in the hundreds of dollars a year for a credit card, chances are that you have an Infinite card.

It’s a bit easier to get a Signature card. Every year, issuers have campaigns to increase credit limit for qualified customers. There are two reasons for it: 1/ a higher credit limit can stimulate more spend from customers and 2/ a Signature card earns an issuer more interchange revenue than a Classic card. One of the key criteria for an upgrade is that customers must have less than $5,000 in credit limit, which is the threshold for a card to be considered by Visa to be Signature. After an upgrade, a Signature card will have more than $5,000 in credit limit.

Therefore, if you have a good credit history and standing, ask your issuer to increase your credit limit to above $5,000. Do check with them if it means you are getting a Signature card. Each issuer will have a different set of criteria to look at, in addition to credit score, to see if they will upgrade your account. There may be a hard/soft credit pull involved and as a result, your credit score may take a hit. However, if your monthly balance doesn’t change, a bigger credit limit means that your utilization would be lower and hence, your credit score would bounce back soon.

I don’t know the exact agreement between Visa and these companies, but if I have to guess, it won’t be Visa that subsidizes these benefits. Visa only earns a tiny piece from every transaction (like 0.2% give or take). The maths don’t add up for them to subsidize these benefits. On the other hand, the likes of Shipt, Skillshare and Solar Sounds have a perfect partner in Visa to market their services and acquire new users. Visa is the biggest card network in the world and in the U.S. It will be highly challenging to find an issuer that doesn’t have a Visa product. After this announcement, issuers will include the new benefits in their marketing: social media, direct mails, emails or websites. Credit card is a highly competitive and fragmented business. Every player pours millions of dollars into marketing and user acquisition every year. Hence, the names of Shipt or Skillshare will be more popular. I also think they will get more new users to the door. The difficult part is to make them stay. But hey, if you want to keep someone close, they have to be familiar with you first. This is about it.

For Visa, this is a good move to deepen their moat. Not only does the network have the biggest pool of merchants AND consumers in the U.S, but they also have the same advantage globally. While powerful, this moat doesn’t guarantee future successes. Visa has competitors circling. Apart from the traditional competitors such as Discover, Mastercard or American Express, there are new challengers on the horizon such as this startup Banked from the UK as well as alternative payment methods such as BNPL via ACH. This new slate of benefits is a plus for consumers as well as card issuers, at no additional cost. It is aimed to acquire new cardholders and keep them on the network as long as possible.

Likely competition for Uber/Lyft in California. Grocery delivery is growing. Apple’s response to Epic’s lawsuit

Potential competition for Uber/Lyft in California

The two poster children of ride hailing companies in the US, Uber and Lyft, are having a legal fight with the state of California. The outcome of that battle remains to be seen, but if they lose, the companies already threatened to leave the state. Meanwhile, CNBC reported that at least 2-3 ride hailing startups talked about potentially swooping in to replace Uber and Lyft if they depart. One of those startups that I found interesting is Alto. Alto is a ride hailing startup that mainly operates in Dallas and Fort Worth. What differentiates Alto from their two bigger peers is that Alto’s drivers are salaried employees with benefits. Also, drivers don’t have to worry about gas or maintenance costs. Here is what their recruitment page says

Source: Alto

Some critics of AB5, the law that can potentially cause Uber/Lyft to leave California, say that the law is flawed in that it kills the flexible schedule that drivers, classified as contractors, enjoy. That is a valid point. Some do prioritize a flexible schedule over everything else. I have seen myself several drivers who just drive on the weekends to get some more money on this side gig. These drivers likely wouldn’t appreciate entering an employment contract that would likely require them to work more than they want. Clearly, in this case, AB5 likely won’t work.

That; however, doesn’t change the fact that Uber and Lyft’s refusal to classify drivers as employees can put drivers as disadvantage. Some drivers put in a lot of working hours, but do not earn enough after they take into account gas, car maintenance expenses and dead miles (hours when they drive around without any rides). Because they are not employees, they don’t have benefits like paid time off or insurance either.

There are two separate camps in this argument with virtually conflicting interests. Whether AB5 alone is a sufficient fix remains to be seen, but the existence of companies like Alto and its willingness to enter California’s market offer proof that there is an alternative model to what Uber and Lyft stand for.

Online grocery continues to grow amid the pandemic

Since March, Covid-19 has pushed online grocery to new heights that few could have predicted. According to Brickmeetsclick, even though growth has plateaued in June, online grocery sales reached $7.2 billion and an incredible 85 million orders.

Recent market developments suggest that the trend is likely to continue in the upcoming months. Shipt announced the drop of membership requirements and instead let customers pay $10 for a single order, $9 per delivery for 3 orders and $8 for 5 orders. Additionally, Walmart and Instacart recently partnered to provide same-day delivery in four markets across California and Oklahoma. Last Thursday, DoorDash entered the grocery delivery market with DashPass, a $10/month subscription which allows customers to order and receive groceries in about an hour. Last month, Uber joined the party with their own grocery delivery option through the main Uber and Uber Eats apps. Moreover, FreshDirect unveiled its expansion into New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

Grocers and delivery services are working in tandem to facilitate more online grocery spend. Grocers let customers receive orders at their front door, pick up and drive up at stores. Delivery services lower barriers and compete with one another to acquire users. In the near future, this battle will be very fierce and the biggest beneficiary will be the end consumers.

Apple’s legal issues with Epic Games

Apple responded to Epic Games’ lawsuit over the App Store policies. In the response, Apple offered reasons why the court should let Apple continue to ban Epic Games’ apps while the legal battle rumbles on, including:

  • Epic’s alleged harm is not irreparable. Epic’s apps will be reinstated on the App Store if the game maker removes its own payment option, the cause of its violation of the terms of services, and adheres to the guidelines that Epic agreed to from day one.
  • Epic’s alleged harm is its own doing. The game maker first asked Apple for a special treatment by creating an Epic Store inside the App Store. Then, it asked Apple to open up the App Store by allowing more payment options. After the requests were declined, Epic Games decided to circumvent the App Store policies by offering its own payment scheme, suing Apple and launching a coordinated PR attack.
  • Apple does not engage in anti-competition practices and the App Store policies are to make sure that 1/ consumers’ privacy and safety are protected and 2/ Apple gets paid for its investments

The legal document is here and if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, you should have a read.

Personally, I don’t think Epic will win this legal battle. The App Store is Apple’s investment and intellectual property. Hence, Apple is entitled to enforcing the policies on the app marketplace, the same policies that Epic Games has agreed to when it launched its apps on the App Store. Whether Apple is wielding too much power is another matter for discussion, but if you created a marketplace and invests a lot of resources into it, it’s pretty difficult to understand the sentiment that you’re not allowed to benefit from your own investments or to enact and enforce policies that you see fit.

Plus, what happened, based on the emails exchanged between Apple and Epic, seems pretty distasteful and bully-like from the latter. On 6/30/2020, Tim Sweeney wrote to Apple the following, which is part of a longer email. His requests were rejected by Apple on 7/10/2020:

Source: Scribd

On 8/13/2020, Epic wrote to Apple, declaring its intention not to follow the App Store guidelines and to take legal actions if Apple retaliated. Apple subsequently wrote to Epic twice, informing the app maker of its violations and asking it to remedy the situation. Epic Games instead sued Apple for enforcing rules on…Apple’s own app marketplace.

Source: Scribd

Since I am not a lawyer, I’ll leave the argument on legal standings to the court and the lawyers from both sides, but from a common sense perspective, I don’t see a chance for Epic here. Hey app from Basecamp had trouble with Apple before. Instead of raising a legal fuzz, Basecamp raised the issue publicly on Twitter and engaged in discussions with Apple to resolve conflicts, which it did. And Hey didn’t even demand to have its way in the App Store like Epic Games did. That’s the way to do it, not the course of actions and manner that Epic Games pursued here.

This legal battle will leave Epic’s reputation tainted while also not doing Apple’s any favor.

Target’s turnaround strategy

Retail apocalypse has been the rage for a few years. The competition from Amazon is said to be the main reason why many retailers closed shops permanently. The truth is that Amazon serves just another change in the competition to which failure to react will doom any business. Retailers are no exception. As Amazon is the master in eCommerce, retailers likely will not match the Seattle-based company on the digital front. What retailers can do is to find their competitive advantages and exploit them while being at least competitive digitally. I think Target can serve as a good example of a retailer that successfully transformed itself to stay competitive.

Remodeling stores and building digital & shipping capabilities

In 2017, Target announced an ambitious plan to invest $7 billion in remodeling existing stores, opening new ones, launching private labels and building out digital infrastructure. In March 2020, Target revealed that the company completed 700 remodels over the past 3 years and aimed at finishing 1,000 in 2020. Since the announcement of the turnaround strategy, Target has launched 20 private labels. With regard to shoring up its shipping and digital capabilities, Target made a strategic decision to take the task of building out its website internally, instead of farming it out to Amazon like they did before 2013. Crucially, Target’s CIO McNamara reduced the IT headcount from 10,000 to 4,000 engineers. Not only did Target strengthen its core capability organically, but they also brought in external expertise by acquiring two same-day delivery startups in Shipt and Grand Junction. Due to the new acquired capabilities, Target introduced pickup, Drive-Up and Shipt services to most of its stores. Now, customers can order online and receive the goods via:

  • Delivery at home in one-two days
  • Pickup at a local Target store
  • Drive up to a Target store to pick up the goods
  • Have the goods delivered within the same day

Results of those initiatives?

2019 total revenue, gross margin rate and operating income margin rate increased compared to 2018. Walmart’s YoY increase in the latest year’s revenue is 1.9%, lower than what Target posted. Considering the cut-throat competition that Target is in, that increase in the top line and margin should be a positive sign.

For the improved financial performance, Target credited its increased efficiency and customer engagement through both its stores and digital channels. he company revealed that 80% of online orders were fulfilled by its stores. Additionally, “during 2019, over 70% of our comparable digital sales growth was driven by same-day fulfillment options: Order Pickup, Drive Up, and delivery via our wholly-owned subsidiary, Shipt”. In its latest business update amid Covid-19, Target said that digital sales grew more than 100% YoY. The growing importance of digital channels to Target’s business can be seen in the below graph which shows digital sales made up an increasing share of Target’s overall sales in the last 5 years.

In February 2019, Fast Company reported that six of Target’s private labels generated more than $1 billion each in revenue a year. In 2019, 1/3 of Target’s revenue came from its own private labels.

Other initiatives & opportunities

In September 2019, Target launched a loyalty program called Target Circle. The program was introduced after racketing 2 million subscribers in 18-month trial. In March 2020, the number of Target Circle subscribers hit 50 million, from 35 million reported in November 2019. According to Target in Q3 investor call, Circle members spend 2-5% more than non-members. The program has no membership fee, but comes with only a modest of 1% back on purchases. Hence, it’s quite encouraging to see the membership base.

Target has branded debit cards and credit cards issued by TD. According to the quarterly filings, the cards were responsible for around 10% of the purchase volume at Target

Target-branded cards not only allow the retailer to gather so much data on consumers, but also provides a healthy boost of revenue. For the past 3 years, Target has received $680 million of credit card profit sharing from TD. I am not familiar with the agreement between Target and TD, but I think that if more folks sign up for the branded credit cards and spend more using the cards, Target will get more revenue from its issuing partner.

In my opinion, the turnaround strategy by Target has been a fair success so far. However, Amazon and Walmart haven’t stood still either. They also push and innovate every day. If Target wants to avoid the fate the likes of Sears did, they will have to continuously push and innovate as well. But they can serve as a case study against any generalizing claim that anyone not named Amazon is facing retail apocalypse.