The initial numbers show 1994 was a banner year for the credit card industry, but analysts say much of the growth in receivables and accounts came from existing customers rather than an influx of new cardholders.

It was also a year in which the industry's richest continued to get richer, with growth concentrated among such issuers as AT&T Universal, MBNA Corp., and First USA Inc.

David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report newsletter, estimated that 50 million new MasterCard and Visa cards were issued in 1994, but only about eight million people entered the market for the first time.

This indicates that individual consumers are carrying more cards than ever - according to Mr. Robertson, 3.4 credit cards per person, up from 2.4 in 1990. Mr. Robertson said he sees the average increasing to 4.6 by the end of the decade.

"We are all counting the same customer," said Ronald T. Urquhart, vice president of consumer credit at Peoples Bank in Bridgeport, Conn.

While such double counting may be misleading in one sense, Mr. Urquart said, it is also a sign of healthy competition.

"The companies that are growing are figuring out a strategy" that centers on increasingly sophisticated and precise targeting of their competitors' customers," said Mr. Robertson.

Credit card receivables grew by 18% in 1994, up from 15.8% in 1993, 5.9% in 1992, and 9.1% in 1991, according to RAM Research Corp. of Frederick, Md.

Robert McKinley, president of RAM, said issuers expect only 10% growth in 1995, in part due to higher interest rates.

MBNA Corp. of Newark, Del., added $6.4 billion in credit card outstandings last year, the highest one-year increase in the history of the industry, according to The Nilson Report, based in Oxnard, Calif.

Industry experts attribute MBNA's success to its aggressive affinity marketing approach. The company's rank among general-purpose card issuers was unchanged at No. 3, behind Citicorp and Dean Witter, Discover & Co.

New York-based Citicorp increased receivables by $5.3 billion, to $39 billion at yearend, reaping the benefits of a repricing strategy.

The Discover card group had $20.9 billion, up from $18.1 billion, as it continued to grow more slowly than bank issuers. Mr. Robertson said the difference is the Discover card's lack of international acceptance.

First USA moved from 12th to sixth the Nilson ranking as receivables more than doubled, to $11 billion. The Dallas-based company, which issues cards through a bank it owns in Delaware, has profited from a low-interest- rate strategy.

Mellon Bank Corp. became the 25th-largest issuer, finishing the year with receivables of $2.38 billion, up from $1.4 billion. Mellon has succeeded with the Cornerstone MasterCard, launched in January 1994, which rebates interest charges over a 20-year period.

Chase Manhattan Bank dropped in rank, from fifth place to eighth, while BankAmerica Corp., despite a 25% increase in receivables to $8 billion, fell from 8th to 11th.

Chase is making a comeback with cobranded products and a product that targets other issuers' cobranded cards, the Reward Consolidator. But "it still hasn't had a blockbuster program," said Mr. Robertson.

Though it made some secured card and cobranding introductions, BankAmerica was muscled out of its perennial spot in the top 10 by the likes of First USA, Chemical Bank, and American Express Co.

Other companies rising in the Nilson top 25 included the Capital One venture that Signet Financial Corp. spun off, to 12th from 14th; Advanta Corp.'s Colonial National Bank to 15th from 16th; Wachovia Bank, to 17th from 18th; and First Union Corp., to 18th from 23d.

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