A company that tracks mailed credit card solicitations said the response rate in 1997 was the lowest in the 10 years its survey has been conducted.

BAI Global Inc., a research company in Tarrytown, N.Y., said the number of solicitations hit a record high last year of three billion mailings, but 1.3% got responses, down from 1.4% in 1996.

Even so there were still six million more responses to mailed offers in 1997 than in 1996. Some industry executives suggested the massive mailings might be a small price to pay for the additional customers.

Lisa Itzkowitz, director of marketing for BAI, said the absolute number of consumers responding to mail offers went up "because mail volume increased at a faster pace than response decreased." Thirty-nine million consumers answered their offers with an application last year, versus 33 million in 1996.

Even so, Ms. Itzkowitz said the low response rate in 1997 indicated "consumers are tapped out by the clutter of offers." BAI Global said the 1996 percentage was already viewed as unusually low.

In the fourth quarter of 1997, the response rate dipped to 1.1%, the lowest BAI has ever tracked. But mail volume for the quarter was 742.6 million pieces, up 50% from the same quarter the previous year.

Though BAI characterized the results as poor, "the standard response rate for bank card mail solicitations has always been anywhere from 1% to 1.5%," said Michele Turkel, president of Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Spectrum International Consulting Corp.

She said 1.3% would be "not unusual," and far lower rates had been tolerated.

Not long ago, Ms. Turkel said, if a gold card portfolio had a response rate of 0.2%, it could still break even. Gold cards were originally introduced with annual fees, and consumers typically charged twice as much as on them as other cards, she said.

BAI Global said gold card mailings plunged to 27% of the total in 1997, from 44% a year earlier. Platinum card offers picked up the slack, increasing to 40% of card offers from only 6% in 1996.

"Platinum is becoming another commodity that's performing poorly-worse, in fact, than gold cards," Ms. Itzkowitz said. "In the minds of consumers, platinum card offers are not differentiated from gold cards. They are packaged and marketed as new and exciting, but not strongly offering any really new features that are attractive."

Platinum card solicitations were driven largely by a single issuer, Banc One Corp.'s First USA subsidiary, which accounted for 26% of total mail volume.

Ms. Turkel said platinum cards offer nothing "truly unique, other than a higher credit line. The bank-issued platinum cards marketed in the United States are really gold cards painted platinum."

Standard cards accounted for 26% of solicitations, down from 41% in 1996, BAI's Mail Monitor indicated. Nonbank card offers dropped to 7% of the market, from 9% a year earlier.

To set their products apart, platinum card issuers offered attractive teaser rates, Ms. Itzkowitz said. Three out of four 1997 platinum offers had an introductory rate of 5.39%, while the average such rate for gold cards was 5.9%.

"We did track at least five different issuers that offered something a bit different-a 0.0% introductory rate," Ms. Itzkowitz said. "But because consumers were inundated with so many different card solicitations, the introductory rates for platinum card offers were not enough to break through the mail clutter.

"No-fee platinum cards have deteriorated in value, becoming mass- marketed, low-price products, like gold, but at a quicker pace," she said. "When you offer somebody something for free it loses its value."

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