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For the first time ever, more U.S. consumers participate in rewards programs tied to their credit and debit cards than participate in airlines’ rewards, according to a business research firm.According to the firm’s data, U.S. financial services rewards program participation has reached 422 million, a 77% increase since COLLOQUY’s 2007 census, vaulting financial services past airline frequent flier programs as the economy’s largest market for loyalty programs. Airline loyalty programs count 277.4 million members, the firm said.“Clearly, loyalty membership growth in the financial services sector was pronounced during much of our latest census period, prior to the economic free fall,” said COLLOQUY Partner Kelly Hlavinka, who addressed the 21st Annual Card Forum & Expo in Marco Island, Fla., last week.“Just a few years ago, the industry regularly talked about how 50% of all credit cards had reward programs tied in. Today, estimates range from 75% to 80%. For debit cards, 2006 estimates were 10% to 15%, but the latest industry analyses put the numbers at 25% to 50% due to the explosion of merchant funded network programs,” Hlavinka said. “Rarely are companies truly thinking through how crowded the marketplace has become and how to evolve their loyalty strategy to differentiate from competitors.”With the dramatic growth in recent years, the banking crisis and the recession, COLLOQUY predicted that financial services reward program membership will experience slow growth in the coming years. The American Express decision to pay unprofitable cardholders $300 to close accounts is emblematic of the new reality, COLLOQUY added. It also cited regulatory changes that may affect reward program budgets, portfolio consolidation and card issuers exiting the business.“Card issuers will turn from growing their portfolios to retaining their most profitable and creditworthy customers,” said COLLOQUY Editorial Director Rick Ferguson.–[email protected]

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