1988, solicitations for the upscale cards have outnumbered those for standard cards. Behavioral Analysis Inc.'s Mail Monitor service found there were 332.4 million gold card offers in the mail during the second quarter, nearly 70 million more than standard. "Gold cards are becoming much more of a commodity," said Lisa Itzkowitz, director of marketing, for the Tarrytown, N.Y., credit card tracking firm. "Everybody is being offered a gold card now, whereas, everyone used to get standard card offers." In fact, Payment Systems Inc., Tampa, reports that 47% of all bank cardholders are carrying gold, up from 37% two years ago. And those gold cardholders are taking advantage of the larger credit lines by charging more to their accounts. Visa U.S.A. reported that Visa Gold volume rose 45.3%, to $35.4 billion in the second quarter, while MasterCard International said the Gold MasterCard jumped 31%, to $18.9 billion. From time to time people in the industry talk about introducing a premium product, and now that gold has become widespread the idea again is being bandied about. To date, American Express Co. has been the only card company to serve the elite market, with its Platinum charge card. "I think the window of opportunity has been there for a long time," said Scott Parker, senior vice president of marketing for Bank One Card Services Inc. "The question becomes, what particular benefits will cardholders be willing to pay for?" Visa and MasterCard have been exploring that question, but say no new product is in the works. "It's really a function of working backward and trying to understand what needs people might have," said Eric Kahn, vice president of consumer credit product management for Visa U.S.A. Premium product development discussions have intensified over the last 18 months, said Gary Flood, senior vice president of consumer cards for MasterCard International. The questions that must be answered, he said, include these: What is the market opportunity? What are the gaps between what is offered now and what could be offered? What are the costs? What is the profit potential for issuers? But, Stephen Szekely, vice president of Payment Systems, pointed out that consumers are not clamoring for such a card, and if one were to be introduced, it would be by a single issuer rather than the card associations. "The problem that I think any competitor would have in the ultrapremium category would be making your product profitable and distinctive given the competitive set," Mr. Parker said. "We haven't seen a lot of activity, but it certainly remains a possibility for an issuer. There has not been a groundswell of support." American Express Platinum cardholders pay $300 a year for that card, and in return get complimentary airfares, concierge service, and other enhancements. The charge card giant recently introduced a Platinum card for small businesses - a market the card associations should explore, said Robert McKinley, president of RAM Research Group, Frederick, Md. Meanwhile, gold cards have certainly become profitable for issuers. Banc One, First Chicago Corp., Advanta Corp., and First USA are among those driving the push upscale with no-fee gold card offers, sporting low introductory rates, often in the single digits. Given the choice, consumers are bypassing no-fee, low-rate standard cards for gold cards, which offer more services and have higher credit limits. "If you had a choice, why not take gold?" Ms. Itzkowitz said. "From our perspective, the gold card represents the higher-credit-limit audience we're trying to appeal to," either with upgrades or new offers, Mr. Parker said. Gold card marketers can exploit the credit lines more to sell their product, Mr. Szekley said. Increasing the credit line is "the one way issuers tell consumers what they really think of them," Mr. Szekley said. "It's a stroke."

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