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How the chip shortage is affecting the credit card business


It used to be that if you needed to urgently replace your debit or credit card, you could get one within a week or so. Not anymore. NPR's Arezou Rezvani explains why.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: It happens to the best of us. You need to pay for something, so you reach for your wallet to get your credit card, only to realize it's not there. In fact, it's not anywhere. So you call your bank. You answer some questions. And you'll have a replacement in no time, right? Not so fast, says Larry Esters, a card services manager at Signal Financial Federal Credit Union.

LARRY ESTERS: Before the pandemic, the expectation just in the industry was seven to 10 business days. Nowadays, it takes a little bit more time, six to eight weeks.

REZVANI: Almost two months for a card. That's all because of, once again, the chip shortage. That little piece of technology is essential for enhanced credit card security. When the pandemic hit and kick-started the shortage, card manufacturers were suddenly in trouble, says Alain Martin with the Smart Payment Association.

ALAIN MARTIN: Our industry is in competition, for example, with the car manufacturing industry. They use the same kind of chip technology. And so because of this competition, there's been a greater demand, shorter supply, hence delays.

REZVANI: And it's not just the auto industry card manufacturers compete with, it's phones, it's computers, appliances, video gaming. Chips are embedded in products we use every single day. But for some, this problem is a chance to finally break free from the past.

AARON KLEIN: Why are we waiting on chips? Why are we waiting on plastic cards? The technology exists to do the whole thing totally different. You don't need a plastic card with a chip.

REZVANI: That's Aaron Klein. He focuses on financial technology and regulation at Brookings and worked on economic policy at the Treasury Department following the 2008 recession.

KLEIN: America is behind the times. Our payment system is extremely outdated. In China, it's all done on smartphones and QR codes.

REZVANI: One big reason is because Americans have long been wary of digital wallets. People didn't love the idea of flashing their phones to pay by mobile. But the pandemic has changed attitudes, says Jordan McKee, who researches financial tech at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

JORDAN MCKEE: Consumers were thinking more about social distancing and, you know, hygiene and speed - right? - moving through the queues in the stores in a more efficient manner. And so we saw certainly mainstream consumers across the board begin to gravitate more and more towards mobile.

REZVANI: Mobile payments have jumped from less than 5% of in-store purchases just a few years ago to roughly 30% today. McKee says this sudden and enduring embrace could be a chance for the financial system to catch up with the rest of the world. Until then, for those not quite ready to part ways with their plastic. Analysts say credit and debit card delays will likely continue through the year.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "CHILL DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.