As responses to its mailed credit card solicitations continue to decline, First USA says it will shift its attention to cobrand relationships, hoping that deals with new and old partners will help pick up the customer acquisition slack.

The first product to be introduced under this new strategy will be a United Airlines debit card, the company said. Only a very few cobranded debit card products are on the market; the pioneer was J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.’s Continental Airlines debit card, first issued by Chase Manhattan Bank in 1999.

First USA, the credit card subsidiary of Bank One Corp. in Chicago, already issues two United credit cards, another with British Airways, and dozens more with a diverse set of companies and nonprofit groups. Its cobranding partners include America Online, E-Trade, the National Geographic Society, Notre Dame University, and WaldenBooks.

Wilmington, Del.-based First USA has long been one of the heaviest direct-mail advertisers in the industry. But response rates to its mailings have declined to 0.6%, and “this creates stress,” said Rosemary Cauchon, First USA’s executive vice president of partnerships and business card marketing. “We have cut our teaser rates from 6.75% in 1997 to 0%, and we have trouble giving our product away.”

With response rates to mail solicitations down across the board, First USA’s plight is no different from that of any other card issuer — but its proposed solutions are slightly offbeat.

For a while, First USA had been taking a breather from its heavy spending on mailings, but it is now jumping in again with both feet. The company plans to try several ways to fight the public’s boredom with traditional credit card offers. In addition to offering cobranded debit cards, it will seek out untraditional cobranding partners and work toward a multipartner cobranding deal for the First USA Smart Visa card, Ms. Cauchon said.

Credit card solicitations can be sent to any number of prospects, but debit card offers would only be given to Bank One deposit customers — though people eager to accumulate miles on United might open an account with the banking company to get the debit card.

“United, with its Chicago presence, would make a good fit for local account customers,” Ms. Cauchon said.

She said the company’s research showed that the idea for a debit card appealed to people who pay off their card balances monthly and therefore do not produce interest revenue for the bank.

Ms. Cauchon said First USA would look at its other cobrand partners to find more candidates for debit cards. Issuing cobranded debit cards would also help tie together different parts of the banking company’s operations, she said.

Bank One’s retail department “was operating separately” from First USA, she said. “We want to be more integrated.”

During the Internet-partnering frenzy of 1998 and 1999, First USA signed deals with many Web companies to offer cobranded cards. Not all of those deals generated the hoped-for results, but the company made some worthwhile alliances, Ms. Cauchon said. First USA’s surviving Internet partnerships include those with eBay, Compuserve, and Yahoo.

“We partnered with everyone and anyone,” she said. “We learned.”

One of First USA’s recent ideas is to look at its existing partnerships to see who might be interested in joining forces on its smart card. A possible combination of partners could be an airline, a hotel, a university, and a retailer, Ms. Cauchon said. “What we have not addressed is people who want a little of everything, including choosing your benefits a little later in the transaction,” she said.

Cobranded cards continue to have strong appeal for First USA because they keep customers happy, Ms. Cauchon said. Response rates to cobranded direct-mail campaigns are 36% higher, and the attrition rate is half that of other cards, she said. Cobranded cards generate 26% more spending than do non-cobranded cards.

“All these benefits are earned with a higher price, of 100 to 400 basis points higher,” Ms. Cauchon said. The customer’s attitude “is no longer, ‘The credit card issuer is ripping me off.’”

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