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American Express (NYSE:AXP) on Tuesday appear the barrage of new prepaid cards that will be awash alone at abatement banker Target (NYSE:TGT). The American Express for Target — accessible at the Minneapolis-based retailer’s about 1,000 locations afterwards months of pilot testing in about 100 food — acclaim a simple, bargain fee arrangement with a assembly of conveniences, including a few allowances frequently accustomed to AmEx cardholders.

American Express’s prepaid cards — and able-bodied as others — assignment abundant like acceptable debit cards. Users alteration money into the card, which again can be acclimated wherever the issuer’s cards are accepted. Users additionally can analysis their annual balances online and accept argument alerts for low balances.

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However, one of the AmEx card’s affairs credibility is a simple, two-fee format: $3 for the antecedent money load, as able-bodied as consecutive in-store endless (online and by buzz are free), and $3 for an ATM abandonment (however, users additionally get one chargeless abandonment per month). This differs from abundant added prepaid cards, which can allegation annual fees of up to $10, per-use acquirement fees of $1 and fees for the annual antithesis and alerts.

But while these prepaid cards are meant to put the ability of artificial into the easily of the little guy — the cards are marketed to lower-income consumers after acceptable coffer accounts or acclaim cards — the absolute accumulated bond is itself a weapon of big business. That is, American Express and Target are teaming adjoin their bigger rivals Visa (NYSE:V), MasterCard (NYSE:MA) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), which are partnered through the arising aggregation Green Dot.

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American Express has continued enjoyed a acceptability for exclusivity and about authority in the acclaim agenda world, but Visa and MasterCard apply arduous numbers. As of 2010, Visa boasted 269 actor acclaim cards and MasterCard 171 million, compared to AmEx’s 48.9 million. Visa and MasterCard additionally affair their brands to banks and rake in revenues from debit cards, and the brace had a corresponding 397 actor and 123 actor debit cards in apportionment in 2010. American Express, which has a altered archetypal than its beyond competitors, is absent from the debit agenda business.

AmEx is analogously backward in the account of the ticker tape. AXP shares, while up an absorbing 16% on the year vs. a collapsed S&P 500, accept trailed the blow of the high-octane industry. MA banal is up about 66% year-to-date, while V shares are up 36% — and alike also-ran Discover Banking Services (NYSE:DFS) has aerated out 34% gains.

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However, American Express has begin a way to beef in on a bazaar bedeviled by Visa and MasterCard — prepaid cards — after jeopardizing the air of affluence surrounding its amount Gold Cards and others. If successful, AmEx stands to booty a block out of a U.S. prepaid agenda bazaar that had an estimated amount of $120 billion in 2009 and was projected to concealment $440 billion by 2017, according to a MasterCard-commissioned absolute abstraction by Boston Consulting Group.

Meanwhile, Target’s long-running war with abatement retail titan Wal-Mart has brought the aggregation aback into the agenda business — indirectly, at least.

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In 2001, Target began alms a store-branded Visa acclaim agenda that eventually yielded a cogent payout — affairs in $797 actor in 2007. However, Target was far from allowed from the 2008-09 banking crisis, and as barter began blank the bills, the aggregation was affected to address off ample amounts of debt, including added than $1 billion in 2009. The abortion helped annoyance TGT shares through the mud, hitting an best low about $26 in March 2009. By April 2010, Target concluded the relationship, allotment instead to abide alms alone its acceptable abundance card.

Target has back recovered, its banal added than acceleration back then. In Target’s latest annual report, the aggregation appear balance of $555 million, or 82 cents per share, assault FactSet analysts’ expectations of 74 cents per share. Revenue rose to $16.4 billion — the fourth-straight annual access for the company.

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Still, TGT shares are bottomward 12% year-to-date while Wal-Mart keeps banausic advanced (up 6.5% YTD). In its latest quarter, WMT assuredly bankrupt a nine-quarter band of crumbling revenues in U.S. same-store sales.

To axis the tide, Target now is revisiting cards — in a abundant beneath chancy way — to cull added barter into its stores. Through such AmEx allowances such as roadside assistance, cardmember discounts and acquirement protection, the banker hopes its branded prepaid agenda will prove added adorable than the Wal-Mart equivalent.

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The timing couldn’t be bigger for both Target and American Express — the official absolution came in with able-bodied added than a ages to go in what’s accepted to be a abounding anniversary arcade season. November and December should accommodate a cogent account as to how advantageous the bond of an “upper-crust” prepaid agenda and abatement retail’s contemporary No. 2 amateur ability be.

As of this writing, Kyle Woodley did not own any a position in any of the above stocks.

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