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In 2016, Chase cannonballed into the premium credit card market with an offer many found irresistible. The Chase Sapphire Reserve® came with a $450 annual fee (now $550 as of 2020) and debuted with a cornucopia of goodies. It promised:
An impressive 100,000-point sign-up bonus.
Airport lounge access.
Global Entry and TSA PreCheck reimbursements.
A $300 annual travel credit.
High ongoing rewards.
The card’s rich offer trounced the premium credit card competition, and people noticed.
“We saw tens of thousands of applications right off the bat,” says Pam Codispoti, president of Chase-branded cards. Codispoti oversaw the team that developed and launched the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. “The response was so strong that we initially ran out of metal cards and had to issue plastic cards for a short period of time.” Though the card has since reduced its sign-up bonus, its core rewards and benefits remain the same.
By challenging the norms of premium credit cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® amassed a young, wealthy and enthusiastic fan base and set off a fresh round of competition among competitors. Here's how it changed the status quo for premium cards.
Larger sign-up bonuses
When the Chase Sapphire Reserve® launched, its enormous sign-up bonus made headlines. It promised 100,000 points, worth $1,500 when redeemed for travel through Chase. Such enormous offers are rare, usually marketed to the general public only during limited-time promotions.
“The initial offering for the Chase Sapphire Reserve was basically irresistible,” says Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer and founder of JoeSentMe.com, a website for business travelers, noting that the offer brought about a moment of clarity for the premium card market. "I’ll quote ['Death of a Salesman' playwright] Arthur Miller: 'Attention must be paid.'"
The initial bonus was by far the most valuable offer widely available. But in January, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® lowered its sign-up bonus for online applicants to 50,000 points.
The year in review: For Chase, these big bonuses came at a cost. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., told shareholders in December the new card's acquisition costs would reduce the bank's profit by $200 million to $300 million in the fourth quarter, according to a Bloomberg report. But such a bet could pay off in the future if those big bonuses translate into long-term cardholder loyalty.
Early indications show that the cardholders are here to stay, Codispoti says.
“We’re really happy with what we’re seeing from our card members,” Codispoti says. “They’re really engaged with the product. More than 95% of them are digitally active with the card. More than 95% are spending actively on the card on a regular basis. And so far, more than 95% of these customers have kept the card. We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”
Meanwhile, after the Chase Sapphire Reserve® lowered its bonus, some premium cards bumped up their welcome offers. The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, increased its bonus to 60,000 points in late March. The Citi Prestige® Card increased its bonus to 75,000 points in July.
“What you’re seeing is a war for the premium customer, and the customer is winning,” says Mike Abbott, the North American digital lead for Accenture Financial Services, a banking advisory firm.
More flexible travel benefits
From the beginning, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® was designed to appeal to well-heeled millennials — generally, consumers now in their 20s and 30s. Based on its research, the issuer saw an opportunity to offer these consumers a new credit card with more flexible travel benefits than what had been available.
For starters, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offered a $300 annual travel credit automatically applied to a broad range of travel purchases, including rideshare trips and Airbnb stays. That set it apart from its competition, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Citi Prestige® Card, which offered smaller airline fee credits that could be redeemed for a narrower range of costs like airline baggage fees and upgrades.
The year in review: The flexible travel benefits on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® made it a hit with its target audience. The majority of Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders are millennials, whose wealth Chase expects to grow at the fastest rate of all generations over the next 15 years, according to Chase's 2016 annual report. The average cardholder has deposits and investments totaling more than $800,000.
"This product has become so much more than a card," Codispoti says. "We see incredible social and viral buzz. Many of our customers find out about the product from their friends and their colleagues."
In the past year, other premium credit cards started offering more flexible travel benefits, too. In March, The Platinum Card® from American Express added a $200 annual Uber credit and made several other changes. Two months later, the newly released U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card also offered a versatile $325 travel credit and allowed cardholders to redeem points by text message.
Richer ongoing rewards
Compared with its premium competitors at the time of its debut, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offered much higher ongoing rewards rates.
The card offers 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining, worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed through Chase. That gives it an effective 4.5% rewards rate in those categories. It also offers plenty of flexibility: Points could also be redeemed for cash back or transferred at a 1:1 ratio to several major loyalty programs, such as British Airways and Hyatt.
For cardholders like Ralphiee Esperas, 29, who upgraded his Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card to the Chase Sapphire Reserve® last year, these big rewards sealed the deal.
“Three points to a dollar instead of two [on travel and dining purchases] was huge for me,” says Esperas, of Chandler, Arizona. He also liked the card because it offered airline lounge access and reimbursement for Global Entry. “It was a big step up from what I had prior.”
Recently, Esperas used the card on a 12-day vacation in Europe, where he visited Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris, redeeming some of his points toward airline tickets.
The year in review: Since the Chase Sapphire Reserve® was introduced, higher ongoing rewards have become easier to find among premium cards.
In October, for instance, The Platinum Card® from American Express began offering cardholders 5 points per dollar spent on flights booked directly through airlines or on American Express Travel; in March, it started offering 5 points per dollar spent on eligible hotels booked through Amex Travel. In May, the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card debuted offering 3 points per dollar spent on travel and mobile wallet purchases.
In offering more robust ongoing rewards, issuers are giving cardholders reason to spend on these cards. This brings in more revenue.
You might not know from looking at a photo of it online, but the Chase Sapphire Reserve® isn’t made of plastic, like most credit cards. It's made of metal, and its “plunk factor" — a term often used to describe a metal card's heft — has increasingly become a status symbol.
Esperas says that he applied for the card for its generous rewards, not its design, but that people often comment on its appearance. He recounts an experience he had recently when visiting a bar when another patron confused it with the more exclusive American Express Centurion Card, often called the “Black Card,” which has a $2,500 annual fee.
“When I picked up the tab, I pull out my Chase Sapphire Reserve® card — because, you know, 3 points back [per dollar spent] for dining — and all of a sudden the girl next to me says, ‘Oh, you have the Black Card, huh?’” Esperas says. “All of a sudden, she wants to talk to me now because I have this card.”
The year in review: The Chase Sapphire Reserve® isn’t the first card to come out in metal. Its sibling card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, also is metal, as are a handful of other cards.
But since the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, other premium cards have also gone metal, including The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Citi Prestige® Card and the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card. Once relatively rare, metal cards have now become a table stakes feature for premium card issuers.
'A seminal event'
With the initial bonus on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® now reduced, the early excitement over the card has faded somewhat.
“Is the card as trendy, as hot as it was a year ago at this time? The answer is no — and not just because it’s not new anymore,” says Brancatelli, of JoeSentMe.com. “It’s because the most eye-opening thing about that card was the 100,000-point acquisition bonus.”
The card's fresh take on premium benefits, though, continues to make waves in the credit card industry months after it debuted. Even with its reduced bonus, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® still compares favorably with the competition, promising more value and versatility than similarly priced cards. And across the board, other issuers have continued sweetening the benefits of their premium cards.
The launch of the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, says Abbott of Accenture Financial Services, “is one of those things where you can look back a year later and see it was a seminal event.”