Gold card becomes the new designer accessory

There is always one in any crowd. The woman who took the plunge and finally bought brown, just as the others went for charcoal grey. The guy who got into flares, when everyone switched to straight-leg trousers, and back again.

American Express, the world's largest card company, yesterday performed a similar stunt in the financial services world, as it finally launched a gold credit card - years after the opposition cleaned up in the same market.

The new launch comes four years after an explosion in the gold sector, with the number of cards tripling from 800,000 in 1993 to well over 2.5 million today.

Saturation levels in the standard card market have led many banks to launch gold options with the aim of capitalising on higher spenders - who deliver greater profits to their issuers.

Among the 20-plus issuers to have stolen a march on American Express in the past few years is the tiny Leek United Building Society.

Pauline Roessler, marketing manager at the Leek, 26th in the league table of UK societies, said: "We have always argued that small is beautiful. When we want a decision we don't need to go to 700 separate committees to get it."

Ms Roessler declined to give an actual number of Leek United Gold Cards issued, but said they were a "reasonable" proportion of the society's 75,000 members.

Overshadowing the epic commercial tussle between Leek United and American Express is the more significant question of whether gold cards, once the preserve of an exclusive elite, are now the vulgar playthings of a far wider segment of the population.

An American Express spokeswoman yesterday denied any such suggestion: "Our research shows that holding a gold card is rated on a par with owning a sports car or over and above having a fax machine or even going on a skiing holiday.

"Only one in 10 people have a gold card even today and you will find that these people still see them as aspirational things to have."

The card company's seeming reluctance to enter the gold market was based on the fact that although Amex is famous for its charge cards - where you must settle your bill each month - it only launched its first standard credit card two years ago.

However, the spokeswoman added: "What people are looking for is the right brand. When people were asked what card issuer they associate with gold, they immediately said American Express."

Richard Spencer, manager of the plastic cards department at Datamonitor, the research company, said: "Over the last few years, the market for gold cards has changed from a high prestige upper-class thing to something aimed simply at higher spenders. "Some people may feel that there has been a bit of tarnishing of the exclusivity tag. But the card issuers themselves, who stand to make a lot of money from gold cards, won't really care."

Seekers of the ultimate credit card to impress friends and family may not feel the same way. The new metal to aim for - you got it here first - is platinum.

Going for Gold -

The Long Weekend, p21