While the holiday shopping season disappointed some retailers, credit card associations reported record gains in charge volume, continuing the steady growth trend throughout last year.
"Growth has been consistently strong, no question about it," said David Brancoli, a Visa spokesman.
Visa U.S.A. recorded a 26% boost in charge authorization volume from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, a "significant increase" over last year, Mr. Brancoli said.
The numbers may be inflated, however, as some portion of authorization volume will not actually be charged. In addition, there was an extra shopping day. Visa's actual volume grew 28% over 1993 for both the second and third quarters of 1994.
MasterCard International tracked a 35% increase in charge transaction volume over its network during the holiday season. "What we're seeing is not surprising," said Steve Apesos, a spokesman. "We've seen our volume growth numbers rising on the average of 20% to 22% all year."
MasterCard's calculations include transactions for all credit cards over its payment network - MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and Visa.
Donald Fine, chief market analyst for Chase Securities, a subsidiary of Chase Manhattan Bank, said the growth in credit card volume is "part and parcel of an expanding economy and consumers feeling more secure."
Both bank card associations chalk the gains up to a 6% increase in acceptance locations and more cards in the hands of more consumers. Visa hit 200 million cards in circulation in December, and MasterCard had 128 million as of the third quarter, a 19% increase over last year.
Cobranded cards that offer rebates have spurred card usage as customers try to rack up points for free airline tickets or free tanks of gas.
Visa said its share of overall consumer spending, including everything except mortgages, rose from 5% to 6%. The 1% increase represents $56 billion, emphasizing the shift from cash and checks for varied expenses from medical bills to grocery items. MasterCard claimed 4.5% of consumer expenditures for the year.
"The overall picture is one of a strong economy and robust consumer spending in fourth quarter of this year," said John Ryding, senior economist for Bear Stearns, a New York investment banking firm.
While the card association numbers are not as reliable economic indicators as government statistics, they preceded government numbers that Mr. Ryder said will not begin coming out until this week.
"We have to look for alternative clues," he said. "The entire world is incented to get an early read on what's going on."
"The forecast can change," he conceded. "That's just the name of the game."
Mr. Apesos said MasterCard releases its numbers as a service to retailers and a public relations opportunity to create awareness for credit cards at this time of year.
"Promoting that sales are up creates more consumer confidence for using the cards," he said.