In the eight months since it started issuing MasterCards to seven million of its inactive Sears cardholders, Sears Roebuck and Co. has broken into the ranks of the top 25 bank card issuers, amassing $1.4 billion in receivables on the general purpose cards.

Moreover, another retailer that quietly began pumping its general-purpose cards last year, Nordstrom Inc., has hit the top 50, with $271 million in card loans on its Nordstrom Visa at yearend. These retail giants - particularly Sears - are in prime positions to shake up the traditional hierarchy among credit card banks, experts say. Both Sears and Nordstrom already have millions of customers carrying their private-label cards, which work only in the companies' stores, and both are encouraging higher-credit customers to switch to the cards that work everywhere and that come with generous rewards programs.

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