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Plastic Issuers Seek Ever More Cardholders : Credit cards: With 40% of all charges made between November and December, it's 'payoff time' for banks.

November 14, 1994|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Is your mailbox crammed with letters from banks offering to sign you up for a new credit card?

Sorry, you're not special.

Credit card companies have deluged consumers in recent weeks with hundreds of millions of letters asking them to sign up for cards. They want to line up as many new customers as possible to cash in on the biggest shopping season of the year.

With 40% of all credit card charges made during November and December, and consumers using their cards a lot more often this year than last, card experts say Santa will be very good to issuers this season.

"This is payoff time in the bank card business," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp., an independent research company that tracks credit card trends.

RAM data shows a cardholder typically charges at least $500 during the holidays. Since many users share an account with spouses, most card balances shoot up by $1,000 during November and December.

That's why consumers have seen their mailboxes stuffed with new offers from American Express, Citicorp and other issuers.

Data on the number of mailings during September and October isn't yet available, but experts estimate that consumers got 600 million letters. In the first six months of the year alone, credit card issuers sent out 1.2 billion pieces of mail, compared to 1.5 billion for all of 1993, according to Robert Skolnick, executive vice president at Behavioral Analysis Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y., company that tracks mail solicitations.

Issuers usually launch new cards in fall and spring ahead of the holiday and vacation seasons, but McKinley said this fall companies have been unusually busy rolling out new cards.

Seven major new cards have been launched nationally in the last three months. American Express Co. recently introduced a new gold card with special travel rewards. In September, the company launched a new version of its Optima card that gives consumers a 25-day grace period on new charges.

Chevy Chase Savings Bank rolled out no-fee Rolling Stones Visas and MasterCards. Federated Department Stores, which owns Bloomingdale's, launched a co-branded Visa card, as did Quaker State Corp. Exxon Corp. launched a MasterCard. Even Adolph Coors Co. put its Coors Extra Gold brand name on a piece of plastic.

Issuers also are offering existing cardholders new products with lower interest rates and special rebates.

For the last few months, Citicorp has sent out solicitations for a Visa that carries a 6.9% rate for one year.

First USA Bank, based in Wilmington, Del., revived an old rebate offer to cardholders who transfer a balance from another card. Takers get a credit equal to 1% of the transferred balance posted to their account. The offer comes with a transfer coupon that looks like a check already made out in the cardholders name.

"This is a good time to be upping spending limits, sending out checks and offering balance consolidation programs," said Donald J. Auriemma, chairman of his own Westbury, Conn.-based firm that does consulting for card companies.

"You've got to get the cards into people's hands by Thanksgiving," said Auriemma. "Timing is everything."

Indeed. Last year, consumers charged $17.9 billion worth of goods from retailers on their Visa cards from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, a 32% increase over the 1992 shopping season, according to Visa.

This year is already stacking up to be one of the best for card companies in a while. Visa and MasterCard charges were up 30% to $170 billion in the first six months of the year, according to RAM Research. The number of new cards in circulation is up 10% to 320 million.

A strong economy, consumer confidence and better deals on credit cards are driving the growth, said McKinley.

However, there's a chance the card companies could get some coal in their stockings. Economists are betting that the Fed will raise rates again this year, which could drive banks to raise borrowing costs more and cause consumers to rein in their spending.

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