The quest for fiscal fitness is leading online shoppers to increase their use of cash and debit cards even as issuers’ own policies and consumers’ desire to avoid debt have discouraged credit card use.

This story first appeared in the December 15, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. Internet users conducted in October by comScore Inc., 65 percent of respondents have changed the way they pay for items online because of concerns about the economy, down from 67 percent in the previous year. Of those who indicated they had altered their behavior, 42 percent said they are more likely to use cash, versus 50 percent in the 2008 study, and 40 percent said they are more likely to use a debit card, up from 34 percent. Twenty-three percent said they were more likely to use a credit card, up from 18 percent last year, and 13 percent said they had begun to consolidate spending to fewer credit cards, up from 12 percent.

The percentage saying they had spread their spending among a greater number of cards advanced to 6 percent from 5 percent.

While debit cards were the rule for drugstore and grocery purchases (34 and 37 percent, respectively, versus 33 and 32 percent), credit cards continued to predominate for purchases of higher-ticket items, including 53 percent of those buying apparel and other merchandise and 66 percent of those making their travel arrangements online.

Just half of the respondents were aware of changes made by card issuers in the past year, and 54 percent of those had received word of updated terms and conditions and 53 percent of increased interest rates. Twenty-six percent had experienced reduced credit limits, 21 percent knew of additional fees and 17 percent were aware of changes in the cards’ reward systems.

Fifty-four percent of those aware of changes said their perceptions of their credit card issuer had worsened, while 39 percent said the effect was neutral and 7 percent indicated their opinion of the issuer improved.

How did those cognizant of change react? Fifty-five percent said they spend less on the card and 27 percent said they no longer use that card for purchases. While 12 percent indicated they closed their account, nearly one-third — 32 percent — said they hadn’t taken any of those actions or others suggested on the comScore survey.

However, the poll suggests substantial openness to change among those who shop online. Eighty-one percent of those aware of changes in their cards said they would consider switching their primary credit card, and 59 percent of those who weren’t aware of different card policies said they would switch their primary card if they learned of such modifications.

Seventy percent of all respondents said they would consider a switch in cards if certain enhancements were available, up from 67 percent last year. The most popular change was a lower interest rate (60 percent), followed closely by better rewards (59 percent).

“Cash back” was the reward type most likely to prompt a switch among those answering affirmatively (83 percent), with merchant rewards a distant second at 41 percent.

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