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Credit card issuers resorting to lifestyle exclusives

By , CardRatings contributor
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If the analysts at Javelin Strategy & Research have their numbers right, Americans may have permanently made the switch from credit to debit for most of their everyday purchases. Payment processors would have been fine with the shift, since they collect a percentage of every "swiped and signed" transaction.

Except that retailers, trying desperately to preserve profit margin in the face of a recession, have found plenty of ways to bounce most of our daily purchases to cheaper, PIN-based transactions on debit cards. The last time you used a debit card at a grocery store, you might have noticed the payment device punt you straight into entering your PIN. It's rarely easy to figure out how to cancel out of that transaction to force a "credit" transaction, so you can earn points, miles, or cash back.

Access to credit isn't the lure it once was, so credit card issuers are turning to the next best thing: access to exclusive experiences. American Express has locked up Fashion Week in New York City, while Visa lays claim to global sporting and cultural events like the World Cup and the Toronto International Film Festival.

Those of us who don't globetrot on a regular basis have seen credit card company sponsorships trickle down to our neighborhoods. Credit card issuers have partnered with major concert promoters, resorts, and theme parks to offer exclusive pre-sale events and even special sections of areas for their cardholders. Don't be surprised if you can't order a ticket for your hometown sports team unless you're carrying a preferred card.

This marketing trend fractures the universal acceptance credit card issuers fought so hard to achieve throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Yet, with fewer Americans surfing balances from card to card, tying our financial accounts to our favorite activities has become the only sure-fire way to acquire new customers. Ten years ago, we often selected cards based on what miles we could earn, or what interest rate we could get. As we head into the 2010s, prepare to stock your wallet with affinity credit cards that enable the lifestyle you want to lead.

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