That bulge in the mailbox is not just your imagination. After a two-year slump, credit card issuers broke the record for direct mail volume last year, sending potential customers more than 5 billion card offers.
  A relatively sunny economic picture contributed to the avalanche of mailings, says Andrew Davidson, vice president of competitive tracking for Synovate, a Tarrytown, N.Y.-based company that follows the industry. He notes last year's modest improvement in the economy, coupled with relatively low interest rates.
  Then there is the self-defense factor. To maintain market share in a fiercely competitive business, issuers need to match their rivals' increased mailings, says Gail Sneed, market development director for financial services at Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Loyalty Marketing.
  Credit card solicitations grew even though consumers can remove themselves from the issuers' lists of recipients. The Direct Marketing Association operates a Mail Preference Service that enables individuals to register online or by mail to have their names dropped from some lists. The Federal Trade Commission's Web site lists a toll-free number consumers may call to have their names deleted from mailing lists. Consumers also can contact each credit bureau directly.
  While opting out may reduce the flow of direct mail pieces to some households, it has done little to stem solicitation volume in general. Scott Strumello, an analyst at Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y., says issuers actually can benefit when consumers opt out because the number of wasted solicitations is reduced. Opt-out lists would prove more useful, however, if they were sophisticated enough to allow consumers to opt out of some types of direct mail but not all, he adds.
  When issuers send more offers, the percentage of recipients who sign up for cards almost always declines. That figure, called the response rate, was 0.4% for the first three quarters of last year. That response rate is lower than the annual rate for any of the six previous years, Davidson says. In fact, the response rate in 1998 was 1.2% and has fallen almost every year since.
  More Selective
  The final count of direct mail pieces for 2004 was not expected until after Credit Card Management was scheduled to go to press, but Davidson was confident volume would set a new record. The previous high of about 5.02 billion was achieved in 2001. Before bouncing back this year, mailings decreased in 2002 and 2003 as issuers stopped sending so many offers to less credit-worthy consumers, says Davidson.
  If numbers for the first three quarters of 2004 held true in the final three months of the year, consumers received an average of 4.6 offers per month in 2004, the most ever. In 2003 they received an average of 4.1 credit card solicitations per month.
  Still, issuers are becoming more selective in choosing who receives offers. Though it appeared that mailings would set a record for volume last year, only 65% of households received offers, down from a high of 77% in 2001. Households with incomes of less than $50,000 received 49% of offers in 2001, 40% in 2002, and 34% in 2003 and 2004.

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