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The Office-Supply Superstores' Credit Cards Are Less Than Super
A bank card — or the corner stationery store — will likely offer you a better deal

The office-supply superstore concept is straightforward enough: offer convenience and discounts. But what Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax apply to selling paper clips doesn't seem to hold as true for their credit cards.

Business Week Online checked out the private-label credit cards, which are marketed mainly to small businesses, at the three companies. The cards' main appeal seems to be that they're a handy way to keep track of office-supply expenses and keep them off personal credit cards. All of the superstore credit cards claim to offer more detailed invoices than bank cards for your accounting purposes. But our assessment is, they're no bargain. The annual interest rates -- 20.8% and up -- are among the highest in this era of aggressive credit-card marketing. As for convenience, getting basic consumer information about the accounts generally took some digging.

To be sure, there are differences with these office-supply superstore credit cards: We found Staples' customer service and spokespeople to be the most forthcoming, though its Web site offers no details of financial terms with the online card application form. Office Depot -- the best of the Web sites, in this respect -- had complete financial terms attached to the online application, and its staff were helpful. OfficeMax had no financial details about its credit cards on the site. You have to request an application via E-mail. Moreover, we had trouble finding out exactly what information comes on an invoice. Michael Weisbarth, a spokesman for OfficeMax, told us that details about the expanded product-tracking invoices on OfficeMax's Business Credit Account are between the company and its clients.

None of the three superstores would comment on why the interest rates on their cards are so high. They only said their rates are competitive.

Here's a rundown of what the superstores offer:

Staples: The superstore offers two types of accounts, neither with an annual fee. Business Revolve is for companies that spend less than $6,000 a year at Staples. Open Account is for those that spend $6,000 or more.

Business Resolve has an APR of 20.8%, with a late fee of $20 for bills that are 15 days overdue. Minimum payments are the greater of $25 or 1/24 of outstanding balances. Customer service tells us lines of credit run from $750 to $10,000.

With an Open Account, there is no interest charge, but payments are due in full each month. If you don't meet the purchasing minimum, you are automatically rolled into the Business Revolve program and assessed those hefty finance charges.

Invoices for both services list the product by name, with quantity purchased, cost per item, subtotal, tax, date ordered, and the name of the person who ordered.

Office Depot: It also has two types of credit cards for small business. Business Credit Card charges an annual percentage rate of 20.8% on balances after a 25-day grace period, but no annual fee. Minimum payment per bill is the greater of $25 or 1/24 of outstanding balances.

Office Depot's senior vice-president of marketing, Thomas Cross, says the monthly invoice for the Business Credit Card offers more product-tracking details than a normal credit-card bill, but he was unable to tell us what they were.

Customer service reps told us that there is also an Office Depot Technology Card, which charges an annualized 22% after a 25-day grace period. If you run a balance of $299 or more (while making minimum monthly payments), there's no finance charge for six months. But, for any unpaid balance on charges more than six months old, the company bills you interest retroactive from the day of purchase at an APR of 22%. Customer service told us the card is primarily for individuals, but many small businesses use it, too. The invoice isn't more detailed than a bank credit card. Minimum payment is the higher of $20 or 1/30 of outstanding balances. Late fees vary from state to state.

OfficeMax: It offers two types of accounts for businesses, the Business Credit Account and the DirectMax Plus. The Business Credit Account is for entrepreneurs that expect to spend less than $5,000 a year. The APR is 20.8%. The minimum payment is the greater of $25 or 1/40 of outstanding balances. There's no annual fee and no interest if customers pay within 25 days of billing. After that, interest kicks in -- and a late fee of $15 is assessed if no minimum is paid.

DirectMax Plus is actually an open-billing account without a card for businesses that will spend $5,000 or more a year. There is no interest charge, but payments must be made in full 20 days from the statement date, otherwise there is a $20 late fee.

So why aren't office-supply superstores offering better deals? John Grund, principal of First Annapolis Consulting Inc., a Linthicum (Md.) credit-card consultancy, points out that the 20.8% APR is pretty much standard for credit cards at retail stores.

But you don't have to look far to find bank cards with better rates if all you want is a separate account for office supplies. CardTrak, a monthly online credit-card tracking service, now lists 64 cards with nonpromotional rates at less than 18.5%, and 44% of the those cards offer APRs from 14% to 15%. Capital One even offers a 9.9% fixed APR card with no annual fee.

Alternatively, you could set up an account with your friendly corner stationery store. You may not find as much variety. But the billing terms are likely to be less onerous. Roger Harris, president of Padgett Business Services U.S.A. Inc., a small-business accounting firm in Athens, Ga., tells us the average collection cycle for a small business is 30 days. After that, finance charges are typically 1.5% monthly or 18% annually.

By Jeremy Quittner in New York

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