The proliferation of solicitations keeps growing

By John Cunniff The Associated Press
Thursday May 24, 2001

There are few American businesses more aggressive than the credit-card industry, though you might think they wouldn’t have to seek out customers for what they’re selling, which is money. 

This year is likely to set still another record for solicitations to potential customers, more than 4 billion of them, which means on average something more than three a month for every household in America. 

Few products have ever met with such acceptance, including cars, radios, TVs and computers.  

There are probably well over a billion cards already in the hands of users, and providers intend to put more there. 

In his book, “Credit Card Nation,” Robert D. Manning puts the figure at 1.5 billion cards held by nearly 157 million cardholders – retail, bank, phone, gasoline, travel, entertainment, corporate, etc. 

Credit cards make up nearly half the direct mail solicitations you’re likely to receive this year, according to Mintel International’s “comperemedia,” a service that tracks such things. 

Comperemedia estimates that Americans in 2001 will receive 8.3 billion direct mail solicitations in eight categories: credit cards, insurance, telecommunications, mortgages-loans, travel-leisure, investments, banking and technology. Of that total, credit cards will account for 4.3 million. 

Given such saturation, you might think the siege would be lifted, but that seems not to be in the cards.  

Those who a decade ago might have been rejected are now prime candidates. Almost no one is too poor to have one. 

Still, with possibilities for finding new customers shrinking, the solicitation efforts grow, although now they’re aimed at differentiating one card from another and getting existing owners to raise their usage. 

The credit-card business simply doesn’t accept “no” for an answer. Solicitation response rates have fallen. Users are worried about an economic downturn. Defaults are rising. But so are solicitations. 

As the solicitations rise, so also is the availability of money from other sources.  

With home ownership and prices climbing, more and more Americans have equity in their homes. And that equity can be used. 

The old notion of paying down the mortgage to zero is now viewed by many families as a misuse of wealth.  

They renegotiate the mortgage to a lower rate, withdraw some of the equity and use it to spend now. 

Others simply negotiate an equity loan atop their first mortgage and use it as a credit card. The interest rate may be a fraction of that on the credit card, and Uncle Sam allows them to deduct it from income taxes. 

The use of home equity to maintain lifestyles has become tremendous competition.  

Many credit-card owners, for example, now use home equity to pay down balances to zero, depriving issuers of profitable business. 

No matter, the card issuers keep trying, apparently with some success.  

The seams of wallets and pocketbooks are strained with cards rather than dollar bills, and consumer credit continues to rise. 

John Cunniff is a business analyst for The Associated Press