Banks are starting to stretch introductory-rate offers beyond the usual three to six months in an effort to woo customers.

Among 19 issuers offering rates below 10% that are listed in the latest issue of RAM Research Corp.'s CardTrak newsletter, Signet Banking Corp., Citicorp, Wachovia Corp., AFBA Industrial Bank, and Abbott Bank are offering introductory programs that last longer than usual, said RAM president Robert B. McKinley.

The monthly report also indicated that unweighted average interest rates on credit cards fell to 15.9%, going below 16% for the first time.

At Least a Year

The introductory programs of Citibank, Wachovia, Signet, and AFBA Industrial Banks stand out because they run for a year or more. Citibank and Wachovia began their offers this month, and AFBA introduced its low rate in August.

Citibank's Choice card division is offering a no-annual-fee 6.9% Visa or MasterCard through January 1995. The interest rate then jumps to prime plus 9.4 points.

"The Choice card is designed for price-sensitive customers, and the most creditworthy people get this card," said a spokeswoman at Citicorp. She noted the card is being tested in Washington and Maryland only.

The bank hopes to learn more about the value customers place on low rates.

Wachovia is offering a Visa and a MasterCard at the prime rate for one year with a $18 annual fee for standard cards and a $28 fee for gold cards. After one year the rate skips to prime plus 3.9 points.

"Once an offer goes beyond six months, it is not promotional anymore," said Mr. McKinley, president of the Frederick, Md., firm.

Mr. McKinley said Wachovia's product is one of the best deals for consumers because the interest rate stays low even after the introductory period.

Free Balance Transfer

In addition, there are no balance transfer fees associated with the Wachovia card, and cash advances are treated the same as purchases, he pointed out.

Some industry experts are skeptical about whether year-long low introductory offers represent the beginning of a trend.

Ten percent and lower annual percentage rate offers, experts argue, are not a major force in the industry because only a minority of cardholders have the cards.

|Most Americans Could Qualify'

But Jerry D. Craft, president of Wachovia Card Services, said his program is aimed at a wide audience. "Most Americans could quality for this card because it is not necessarily limited to our best customers," he said. "The majority of our portfolio, over $2 billion, is composed of below-10% APRs."

Wachovia's latest offer is indicative of the issuer's overall philosophy, said Don Auriemma, president of Auriemma Consulting Group Inc. in Westbury, N.Y. "Wachovia competes solely on the basis of price," he pointed out.Long Lures Length of Introductory time offered rate (in months)Wachovia 6.0% 12Citicorp 6.9 15Signet 6.9 15AFBA 8.9 12IndustrialAbbott 9.9 9(*)(*) Rate good for one year with abalance transfer of $1,000 or more Sources: Ram Research, American Banker

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