During a downturn, consumers are much more likely to use — and to repay — general-purpose credit cards than retail cards, and pretty much every major retail issuer tried to bail out of the business at some point over the last few years.

But now, instead of stalled sales, there are eager buyers, as with Capital One Financial Corp.'s agreement to purchase HSBC Holding's $30 billion domestic portfolio, and lenders like Citigroup, which has discussed reintegrating its retail card segment into the core of the company.

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