For all the talk about creating new forms of money for commerce over computer networks, research indicates an old standby is beating them to the punch.
While it may be too soon to draw conclusions about ultimate payment preferences on the Internet and other interactive computer systems, a study commissioned by Verifone Inc. shows credit cards have all the early advantages.
Sellers of goods and services on-line are attuned to credit card acceptance and, like many conventional retailers, they find consumers simply like and want to use their cards, according to the survey conducted by Global Concepts Inc. of Atlanta.
Merchants expressed some reservations about the security of on-line systems - an issue raised anew this week when Netscape Communications Corp. acknowledged a flaw in its Internet browser software. But improved data encryption and related technologies are poised to fill the breach, Global Concepts pointed out.
Meanwhile, among Internet consumers polled by the research firm, security concerns generally diminish after the successful completion of on- line orders. Though buyers have given most of their early payment votes to credit cards, they do express a desire for other options that might include digital money or electronic checks.
These findings were revealed last week at a seminar in New York, the latest in a series sponsored by Verifone to coincide with the American Bankers Association's annual bank card conference.
This year's study, "Internet Commerce: What Merchants and Consumers Think About Payment on the Net," was cosponsored by MasterCard International and Visa International, which are likely to be gratified by what it says about their products.
Global Concepts over the last four months conducted extensive interviews with a cross-section of 40 merchants to gauge their attitudes about the budding commercial medium.
The responding merchants ranged in size from more than $1 billion in annual sales (such as Apple Computer Inc., Kroger Co., and Spiegel Inc.) to under $1 million (American Eagle Fireworks, Lobster Direct), and not all had established Internet presences.
At the same time, the Alanta-based research firm gathered more than 450 consumer responses to a survey it placed on the Internet, and followed them up with a small number of focus-group interviews.
All such surveys run the risk of being too limited to be scientific, but few in the nascent world of electronic commerce have been as extensive as the Verifone-Global Concepts effort, and its results dovetail with others' findings and intuitions.
The card associations on their own have posted questionnaires on the Internet to gauge interest in on-line shopping and payments. Of 117 people who responded to a Visa-sponsored inquiry in May, 65 had made Internet purchases and 42 of those said they paid with a bank credit or debit card.
MasterCard reported in June that it found 66% of respondents to a survey on its World Wide Web home page used the Internet to shop around and 28% had actually purchased goods or services.
MasterCard president H. Eugene Lockhart told the Smart Card Forum annual meeting this week that about 25,000 merchants are selling over the Internet, primarily taking credit cards.
Various researchers, citing growth in home computers and subscription networks like America Online and Compuserve, have estimated that on-line shopping generates between $100 million and $250 million in annual sales and will reach into the billions by the turn of the century.
Personal computers with modems are spreading rapidly in middle-income and upper-income households, where credit cards are ubiquitous. Response Analysis Corp. of Princeton, N.J., last week said PCs are in 60% of households that earn at least $35,000; 38% have data or fax modems, 18% use on-line services, and 10% go on the Internet.
Benefiting the traditional credit card is the fact that many of the payment mechanisms being developed for Internet shopping - including those of Cybercash Inc., First Virtual Holdings, and Open Market Inc. - are designed to facilitate and secure credit card orders.
Global Concepts said the merchants it interviewed wanted to accept any and all payment alternatives. But the merchants called on the banks to provide consolidated clearing services and transaction reports, like those that have made it easy for sellers to accept credit cards.
"I don't care what the form of payment is," said a representative of one of the larger companies surveyed. "I care about how hard it is to interface to the payment mechanism and manage the information stream associated with it."
"I just care that I get paid," said Robert Olson, founder and president of Virtual Vineyards, a California company that has attracted considerable attention in the press and business community since it began to sell wine and specialty food products early this year entirely on the Internet.
Virtual Vineyards was one of the midsize (revenues over $1 million) merchants in the Global Concepts study, and Mr. Olson participated in a panel discussion during the seminar last week. Working with Wells Fargo Bank and the Cybercash system, he does virtually all of his sales with credit cards. He likes the idea of not having to store customers' card numbers on his computer, whence they could be hacked.
"The credit card could be the dominant form of payment here," said Global Concepts chief executive Allen H. Lipis.
"Credit cards are an established mechanism, but if another mechanism allows the merchants to sell, they'll use it," he added. But the survey showed little interest in specialized electronic currency like the E-cash being promoted by Digicash Inc., and a concern that the proliferation of such methods could cause confusion.
Mr. Lipis noted that, alongside the merchants' responses, 52% of the Internet buyers answering the consumer portion of his survey said they had made on-line credit card payments.
Another 21% placed orders electronically but paid for them off the net, typically by placing a telephone call or, as in First Virtual's system, via private electronic mail. About 8% said they paid on delivery, and 19% cited other methods.
There was less of a gap on a more qualitative question that asked the consumers to rate on-line payment options on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "most preferable." Credit cards scored 3.66, digital cash 3.33, checks 3.25, automated teller machine cards 2.80, and prepaid cards 2.62.