Every shopping center developer seeks to create something distinctive to attract consumers and convince them to spend money. And, in an era of plastic money, why not experiment with a new credit card, good only at stores in one mall?

That's exactly what the Lerner Corp. of Wheaton plans to introduce at its newest shopping center on Rockville Pike, scheduled to open in a few weeks. For the first time in American retailing, a large shopping center will have its own credit card. The new retail complex is called White Flint, and it also will feature the first face-to-face competition between Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's, two New York stores.

Ironically, those two major retailers have not yet decided to honor the White Flint credit card; both have their own. According to White Flint spokeswoman Marjory Segal, however, the card will be honored at more than 100 other shops and boutiques, and some restaurants.

More than 100,000 applications for a White Flint credit card have been mailed to Montgomey County residents who live in the vicinity of the new retail center and to all preferred customers of Riverdale-based Citizens Bank & Trust Co., a financial institution which will manage the credit operation and billing just as other banks or department stores manage separate credit cards.

According to Charles Lapine, vice president of Lerner Corp., the direct-mail campaign is expected to result in about 25,000 credit cards ready for use by opening day. Lord & Taylor plans to get a jump on its competitors at the center by opening its 118,000-square-foot branch on Feb. 28, while Bloomingdale's 256,000-square-foot unit - the largest outside New York - and other stores will open their doors on March 7.

"Available credit has always been an integral part of retailing and, while we are first, I would expect that many of the better centers in the country will soon follow suit," Lapine said last week.

A number of merchants at Tysons Corner Center, another Lerner project, have asked about a credit card for that mall, but Lapine said development of such a project would have to wait until the White Flint center is completed. Lerner also developed Wheaton Plaza and Landover Mall.

Establishment of the credit card was part of the White Flint lease agreement will all the smaller businesses, and Lapine said he thinks there "is a good chance" Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor eventually will join, as the nation moves into more of a cashless, checkless society. He also noted that it is easier to establish a mall credit card before the complex is opened than afterwards.

Credit cards have an additional benefit for retailers: They can mail promotional brouchures with the monthly bills.

Lerner Corp., officials believe the credit card won't be the only unique aspect of White Flint. For example, Segal said last week that the term "mall" doesn't really apply to White Flint. "It's more a shopping environment than a mall," she said. Only recently had the terms "shopping mall" replaced "shopping center."

The environment at White Fling will include Japanese gardens, valet and deck parking, a three-level complex of shops instead of the standard two, and glass-enclosed elevators.

Although afluent Montgomery County has been targeted as the primary market for White Fling, the developers also expect to attract consumers from southern Pennsylvania, metropolitan Baltimore and distant counties in Virginia. A number of New York specialty shops will be opening their first area branches at White Flint, joining such Washington merchants as Raleighs.

Theodore N. Lerner, president of the development firm, has estimated the overall market for White Flint at 600,000 persons, with total annual income of more than $3 billion. Parking will be provided for 4,000 automobiles.

An unusual aspect of interior mall design will be groupings of shops to look like city neighborhoods. There will be an "M Street" from Geoegetown, a center-within-the-center designed to mirror "the charm and appeal" of the Disrict retail strip. Another 22 shops will be included in "Mediterrania," hopefully with an Old World plazza ambiance. Restaurants will serve everything from bagels to quiches.