Years ago, consumers pursued the credit cards they wanted, which they learned about from mass advertising or other undifferentiated media.
Today, the roles are reversed. Card issuers have become the suitors, hurling billions of pieces of direct mail at prospective takers.
There is nothing chaotic about the way these solicitations are designed and launched. Marketers rely on lists derived according to their specifications from highly sophisticated data bases.
Thanks to those vast stores of data on consumer shopping habits and preferences, using information like the clothes people wear and the magazines they read (and, of course, credit histories), credit card companies have gotten as good as many other marketing organizations at finding their best customer prospects.
Liza Kirby, director of promotional products and services for Fair Isaac & Co., in San Rafael, Calif., said this leading provider of credit scoring and predictive models is seeing more and more targeting and tailoring of products to appeal to specific slices of the consumer market.
Banks are buying behavioral models that predict revenue potentials, revolving balances, and how likely a prospect is to respond to a particular offer.
The demand has been good news for Fair Isaac's competitors, such as the CCN Group's MDS Division in Atlanta; credit bureaus like TRW, Equifax, and Trans Union; and consumer data base specialists like Claritas Corp., Harte- Hanks Data Technologies, and Metromail Corp.
Of particular interest are cluster codes, which group consumers by demographics, age, income, homeownership, time at their residence, and other variables. Profiles can be created based on similarities and lifestyle choices.
It's a scary prospect to consumer advocates.
Janice Shields, project coordinator for the Center for Study of Responsive Law in Washington, said the gathering of more and more personal information about consumers raises privacy issues.
She is also concerned that credit bureaus keep track of inquiries they receive on individual credit reports. Too many inquiries might induce a lender to reject an otherwise attractive loan applicant.
Ms. Shields said the volume of mail solicitations is overwhelming. "Banks are all trying to tap the same market while they are missing some segments of the population."
Although bankers are looking into undeveloped markets, most believe people who already have cards are the best prospects.
"The challenge is to find untapped opportunities," Ms. Kirby said. "Appeal to new users."