Most credit card mail solicitations are for platinum cards, but gold card offers are increasing in number, for the surprising reason that issuers are pitching them toward the subprime market.

The shift, part of a broad move by card companies to offer customers at least the impression of an upgraded product, is one more way card issuers are looking to gain competitive advantages amid a continued surge in direct mailings.

In the dog-eat-dog market to acquire card accounts, design can matter as much as annual percentage rate and fees, said Andrew Davidson, the new vice president of competitive tracking services at BAIGlobal Inc. Hence, the devaluation of the gold standard.

"We've seen specific issuers shift toward gold card mailings," he said. "And the resurgence in gold cards has happened because a lot of issuers are making it their subprime brand."

Mr. Davidson is in charge of BAIGlobal's Mail Monitor, a monthly survey that tracks the volume of credit card offers sent by direct mail, and of Inside Track, a quarterly survey that measures card account retention.

Mail Monitor's most recent figures estimated that 888 million credit card solicitations came to the mailboxes of American families during the third quarter. The response rate was about 0.6%, Mr. Davidson said. (Mail Monitor bases its estimates for the U.S. market on the responses of a panel of 850 households, which changes monthly.) A year earlier 710 million offers were mailed, and the response rate was 0.9%.

"When there are more mailings, there's a lower response," Mr. Davidson said. "That's not surprising when you think of the amount of clutter that's going through the letterbox."

He predicted that the data for 2000 would show an unprecedented volume of mail offers, especially from the monoline issuers.

Mail Monitor recently introduced an online feature: a database of scanned images of card offers (including envelopes, stickers, etc.) that households participating in the survey received in the mail. The database lets card issuers, who are the survey's chief subscribers, see exactly what their competitors' offers look like.

"We code all the information about the offer like APR, introductory APR, fees, rewards," Mr. Davidson said. "Now our clients can look at the actual piece of mail and get a feel of whom their competitors are targeting. They can also see whether a platinum offer comes on platinum paper and that kind of thing."

Though Internet card offers have not taken off yet, they will soon, Mr. Davidson said.

"We asked people who had applied for cards in the last month what they applied through," he said. "Around 85% said direct mail; 5% said online. The trend is obviously toward the Internet and chip cards and that sort of thing, but at the moment the majority of new acquisitions are still made by mail."

Mr. Davidson's predecessor, Julia Beaver, left the Tarrytown, N.Y., company for a post at Mr. Davidson's previous employer, NOP Research Group, a market research firm in London that focuses on the financial industry. BAIGlobal is a subsidiary of Market Facts Inc., which is owned by the British company Aegis Group PLC.

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