Despite that, direct mail still works more efficiently than anything else in attracting new card customers. Last year, direct mail generated 68% of applications despite the saturation of the market. Last year the miniscule 0.6% response rate amounted to 21 million respondents, not that much less than the 25.8 million that accepted card offers in 1992, when response rates hit the stratosphere at 2.8%.

Back then, though, the card companies sent out a measly 920 million solicitations. Last year, they mailed nearly as many offers (875 million, to be exact) to a sliver of the population that previously had been ignored: Those with poor or no credit ratings. This group has become a prime target. They generally are willing to pay APRs of 19% or more. They don't quibble.

"Card companies are always looking for any gap in the market, and so are always refining their marketing," says Andrew Davidson, a vice president of BAIGlobal Inc., Tarrytown, NY, which supplies figures on mailings through its Mail Monitor unit.

Half of all mailings in 2000 were offers for Platinum cards, while 17% were for Gold cards.

Ken Posner, a senior analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, predicts that credit card balances over the next few years will grow by 9% in this country, and even faster abroad. "The overseas markets are dramatically under-penetrated and this is where card companies in the U.S. will have to look for fast growth."

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