LOOMING HIGHER INTEREST SPURS VOLLEY OF REBATE CARDS

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A flurry of new and enhanced credit cards offering rebates and other incentives threatens to overwhelm consumers whose mailboxes are already stuffed with offers.

Creeping interest rates may also stem the appeal of some new rebate cards, which typically charge higher rates.

As a result, many card programs were rushed out last month so they could be promoted before higher rates took effect on new accounts.

Consider these developments:

AT&T's Universal Card added Something Extra, offering merchandise, plane trips and other rewards based on outstanding balances, not purchases, benefiting profitable customers who don't pay their bills in full each month. Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, Boston, handles.

Chase Manhattan Bank introduced a Cash Builder Visa, which rebates 1% of purchases and 10% of finances if cardholders spend $200 a month.

GE Capital's GE Rewards also added a 2% cash-back rebate offer, replacing coupons that provided credits at retail partners.

Nordstrom introduced its co-branded Visa card, promising 1% to 5% rebates good on the department store's merchandise, handled in-house.

Fidelity Trust Co. unveiled the Fidelity Investors Card, rebating 1% of purchases into a savings account that's later transferred into a Fidelity mutual fund, handled in-house.

"The market is getting flooded with these offers, and to some degree, consumers will find it overwhelming," said Robert McKinley, president of RAM Research Corp., Frederick, Md.

Mr. McKinley said many of these rebate gimmicks, though "creative," don't yield returns as great as simple no-frills low-rate cards, like Citibank's Choice and Wachovia Bank offers.

But cards with high rates and no rewards are likely to be squeezed even harder as consumers come to expect more with their plastic.

A study sponsored by Visa USA last month revealed that co-branded card customers rank rebates and other benefits as most important in their card choice. And more significantly, they use the cards more frequently than standard cardholders, with 49% using them four times or more a month vs. 40% of all cardholders.

Most marketing efforts center on direct mail solicitation, but increasingly, some banks including Wachovia and Banc One Corp. are testing TV spots to create awareness for mail drives and increase response rates. The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., handles Banc One.

Few of these new cards are expected to create anywhere near the splash of record-breaking programs from General Motors Corp. and AT&T. Instead, many are niche cards aimed at narrow segments of the charging public.

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