Visa U.S.A. has introduced a credit card for upscale consumers, its first definitive new product of this type since the gold card.

The Visa Signature Card offers no preset spending limit, and cardholders have an option to revolve a predetermined portion of monthly balances. These terms are meant to appeal to wealthy people who rack up a lot of charges but tend not to leave unpaid balances.

Associates First National Bank of Dallas last week became the first to announce it will issue the Signature Card.

"This stands at the very top of Visa's product offerings," said Robert Stock, senior vice president of credit products, Visa U.S.A. "This card is for a very upscale customer and for frequent travelers who represent the higher end of the credit card marketplace."

The announcement came about six months after MasterCard International's World Card. The two products are similar in that they target an audience that platinum cards have failed to capture.

The current spate of platinum bank cards tend to be upgrades of gold cards with similar pricing and benefit packages, and therefore have not attracted the wealthier customer.

Visa has not set formal guidelines for platinum cards, leaving the gold card, introduced more than a decade ago, its last truly new offering.

"The package of benefits and features on the Signature Card is really unsurpassed," Mr. Stock said.

Asked to compare it with the World Card, Mr. Stock said, "We are really focused on what the customer wants, as opposed to any competitive offering in the marketplace."

"Given our success since the launch of the World Card we are not surprised that others in the industry are following our lead," said Myra Koutzen, vice president of premium card products at MasterCard.

Ms. Koutzen said though MasterCard was the first in this market segment, the association is not "resting on its laurels." Instead it is focused on providing unique services for frequent travelers.

Visa said it is going after the 6.5 million U.S. households with incomes of $100,000 or more.

The Signature Card has a variety of benefits. One is an air miles program that generates one point for each dollar of purchases that can be redeemed on any airline, with no blackout periods. Beyond that, Visa said issuers can tailor the mileage program to fit their portfolio needs.

Cardholders are also entitled to VIP treatment and hospitality at some Visa-sponsored events. This could include private receptions with athletes at football games-like the Pro Bowl '99 in Honolulu-or a chance to go to Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games.

Select retailers are participating in an instant rewards program. A travel component provides discounts and special privileges with companies including Avis Rent A Car and Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

The card carries an interest rate of prime plus 1.4%, which would work out to 9.9% at today's rates.

"Visa has obviously added the dimension of preferred access because it is dominant in marketing events like football and the Olympics," said Russ Schoper, president of Business Developments International in Alpharetta, Ga.

"Visa has appeared to be very successful over the years integrating marketing programs with its products and services."

Associates First National Bank started mailing applications last month.

Though the Signature Card is not being offered to a majority of Associates customers, it will "provide value to selected consumers" across all portfolios, a bank spokesman said.

Mr. Schoper said Associates' early interest was a little surprising, given the company's past pattern of building its portfolio through acquisitions, often of troubled or private-label portfolios.

"All issuers are looking for new opportunities to grow market share, increase revenue, and make their shareholders happy," Mr. Schoper said.

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