BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- American wallets and keychains are filled with more loyalty program cards and potential free stuff than ever before, but they aren't all key players in holiday shopping plans.
Membership in U.S. customer-loyalty programs has reached 2.1 billion, up from 1.8 billion in 2008 and 1.3 billion in 2006, according to marketing and loyalty program tracking firm Colloquy's 2011 Loyalty Census. The average U.S. household is signed up for 18 retail loyalty programs -- roughly 50% more than shopping households were using in 2006, but also a bit of a stretch, as shoppers took part actively in only 8.4, or 46%, of all their loyalty programs.
Still, that's up from 39% usage in 2006 and indicates just how many companies looked to loyalty programs for a competitive edge. Delta Air Lines (DAL - Get Report), Virgin America, JCPenney (JCP - Get Report), GameStop (GME - Get Report) and Walgreens (WAG) were among the companies that started or expanded loyalty and rewards programs last year.The estimated value of the rewards dished out by loyalty programs within the past year falls just below $48 billion, or $622 per household. That would be great if the average consumer was using all of it. Instead, about $16 billion (or $202 per household) went unused by consumers who either weren't aware those rewards were there or didn't want to go through the trouble of cashing in minimal rewards for a program they weren't thrilled with from the outset. That apathy may just be a matter of holding the wrong cards. With the holiday shopping season providing a great excuse to whip out the rewards card and rack up gifts, we've put together a list of five outstanding rewards programs that don't let too many obstacles stand between spenders and their free stuff: