SOUTH Africa's major credit institutions have a peculiar requirement for customers who want to borrow money: applicants must first have a credit record.

Some store accounts are exempt from this requirement, so may be used if one wants to build a credit record.

But not all application processes are accessible to people with hearing impairments. Money&Careers surveyed the accessibility of credit applications from three store-card issuers, and gave them scores out of five.

Edcon Financial Services

Edcon recently sold its store-card portfolio to Absa for R10-billion, but is still responsible for dealing with customers at its stores, which include Edgars, Red Square, Boardmans, CNA, and Legit.

Debbie Millar, Edcon's investor relations and media executive, said that after applying online or in a shop, the customer received an SMS advising them of the outcome of the application, as well as the process required to activate the account.

This usually meant visiting the nearest Edcon store with the green identity document.

"Edcon customers are not requested to contact the call centre," said Millar. "The linking of the new card and all administrative procedures are conducted in the store."

Rating: ****

The one-stop application process for the eight chains in the group is particularly enticing.

Woolworths Financial Services (WFS)

On completing the Woolworths Financial Services' form, the applicant is SMSed and told the request is being processed and that Woolworths will be in touch. So far, so good.

A while later, another SMS arrives, saying the application has been approved, and you should contact the call centre.

The e-mail address on the website yielded no response - so someone else would have had to call on the applicant's behalf. But WFS said only the applicant was allowed to complete the process.

At first glance, this policy seems to exclude thousands of people: the latest census data showed that almost 1.5million South Africans had some difficulty hearing, with around 250000 and 52000, respectively, having a lot of difficulty hearing or being unable to hear at all.

Woolworths denied excluding the deaf: "Woolworths does extend credit to customers who are hearing impaired, and we've processed many successful applicants in the past," said a spokesman.

"We do allow a spouse or an authorised person to call on behalf of our customer to activate the account.

"It is unfortunate that, in this instance, one of our employees communicated the incorrect information."

The spokesman said hearing-impaired applicants had two options. The first was to apply for credit by e-mail, fax, or in a store, where the applicant would have to attach their identity document and an affidavit confirming they were hearing impaired.

"We will ... engage with you electronically to discuss a pre-agreement containing the main features of the proposed agreement and the cost of the credit on offer.

"If there is a card linked to the credit, we will issue the card to you at your nearest store. You would be required to collect the card at a store with proof of identification," the spokesman said.

The second option was to give someone a power of attorney to complete the application on your behalf.

Rating: **

There is no way to apply on the WFS website - and you have to get a power of attorney or an affidavit, which is not required for customers with hearing.

RCS Group

This joint venture between the Foschini Group and Standard Bank offers a large portfolio of private-label and co-branded store cards for corporate retailers, including Game, DionWired, Spitz and Kurt Geiger. It also offers the RCS card, which can be used at the stores of more than 400 partner brands easily identified by the RCS logo.

Karin McGeachie, chief customer operations officer at RCS, said it had a number of procedures for prospective customers who were hearing impaired.

"The customer can go to selected merchants and complete an application form, after which it will be faxed to RCS for capture," said McGeachie.

"The outcome of the application will be sent via an SMS to the customer's mobile, and the store is also informed either by e-mail or fax. A copy of the pre-agreement is faxed to the store for the customer to read and retain, and a copy is also posted to the customer. The card is then issued in the store and the customer can commence buying immediately."

She said that if the customer had someone who had a power of attorney to do business on their behalf, as was often the case, they could contact the call centre to apply.

The customer could also apply on the RCS website.

"In the case of an approval, the customer is notified via e-mail, with a reference number, to go into a store, where the store manager will contact the call centre to activate the card.

"All cards are activated at a merchant, either when applying at the store or when having applied via the online system," McGeachie said. "The store managers will contact the call centre in an online scenario to activate on the customer's behalf once the customer provides proof of identification."

Rating: **** (and a half)

So many options, so many stores.

*This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers