Nimble credit card companies that specialize in Internet service appear to be changing the way consumers apply for and manage their card accounts.

Because it is so easy to apply for a card online and get instant approval, more people are doing so, and card companies that promote this feature say they can get people to buy other products and to use electronic accessories such as digital wallets. As consumers are getting more comfortable applying for credit cards online, they are seeking other financial services products on the Internet — in what amounts to a reversal of the offline pattern, in which people tend to get cards from the bank that holds their deposit account.

While the volume of applications made through the Web for mortgages or personal loans through is still not large enough to make a difference, the number of people seeking credit cards online is sizable and represents a behavioral shift perceptible to card issuers, experts say.

A report by Gomez Advisors, a Needham, Mass., Internet consulting firm, estimates that 28 million credit card accounts will be obtained through the Web by 2005 and says a disproportionate number of them are likely to be opened with Internet boutiques such as NextCard Inc., Juniper Bank, and Security First Network Bank.

Experts say these smaller issuers are challenging traditional credit card companies — such as Citibank, the First USA division of Bank One Corp., and Capital One Financial Corp. — for Internet sovereignty.

John Hashman, president and chief executive officer of NextCard, said that two years ago, when his company introduced a card designed for Internet shopping, the major card companies did not have equivalent products.

Today, “You see all these commercials for the Internet from companies like American Express, Visa, and MasterCard,” he said. “That’s great for NextCard, because we have a leadership position on the Internet.”

Of the people surveyed in the Gomez report who are online and have a credit card, 11.3% — or eight million — have applied for a card on the Web, and 39.7% of their applications were approved.

Only 1.2 million, or 3.2%, applied for a mortgage online. Also, 3.5% of those who have loans or credit products applied for a personal loan through the Internet.

Members of the Gomez survey audience have been online for a median of 2.36 years. The average adult Internet user has been using the Web for 1.82 years, the firm said.

As more people come to consider the Internet a natural place to seek a card, there will be more and more economic ramifications for issuers, Gomez said. The issuers may be able to cut their direct mail costs but may have to pay more attention to their technology and service support, the firm said.

Online card companies say they are getting people to do more than rate-shop on the Web. The longer a customer sticks with a company, the more likely they are to buy a second product or to use a convenience service such as online bill payment or wallets that automatically fill out Web shopping forms, the issuers say.

“Online firms are redefining the traditional value proposition of a credit card by bundling new online services, such as account management tools, bill payment, account alerts, and wireless access,” Gomez financial services director Paul Jamieson wrote in the report.

“Success in exploiting the Internet will come to those firms that will efficiently acquire new accounts and deliver innovative online services to their customers, as well as integrate new credit card technologies into their business models,” he wrote.

Executives at more traditional card issuers said they are reaping their fair share of Web customers.

Kristen Batteria, a spokeswoman for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., said Chase Manhattan Bank “acquired a significant number of customers” online last year.

Chase’s deposit account customers are not the only ones drawn to apply for credit cards through the Web, she said. “Online credit card shoppers are driven” to the bank’s site through “major campaigns that we have under way with affiliate vendors and cobrand partners, such as Continental Airlines and Shell.”

Mr. Hashman said the Gomez study “validates what we believe is occurring in the marketplace.” The growth among online card companies “is due to the compelling market that consumers see” for the products, he said.

Electronic wallets, which met some resistance in the past, are “something that more and more Internet customers will get accustomed to,” Mr. Hashman said. NextCard’s customers love the current generation of e-wallets, he said. “You can look at the customers who have the e-wallet, and they spend more online, and they keep high balances with us.”

The average NextCard customer transfers $2,000 into a new account and maintains a monthly balance of about $1,800 to $1,900, Mr. Hashman said. The company’s third-quarter chargeoff rate of under 3% is one of the lowest in the industry, he said.

The Gomez study praised NextCard, but said that only 8% of the first-time visitors to the company’s Web site establish a relationship with the company.

Mr. Hashman said the company prefers it that way. “We’re getting the right customer to our site at the right cost,” he said. “We may end up with slightly fewer customers, but better credit quality.”

Juniper, an Internet-only bank that opened in October, is following in NextCard’s footsteps. The bank, led by veterans of First USA, says it is trying to use the credit card to attract customers and then cross-sell them a variety of products.

Last month Juniper said that it signed up 50,000 customers and recorded $100 million of receivables in its first two months. The bank does not develop all the products it offers, but instead offers some in partnership with other financial services companies.

“We make sure we’re integrating into our partner’s site” without being “interruptive,” said Ben Brake, Juniper’s director of marketing. “Wherever possible, we try to keep the colors of the partner’s site consistent with our site.”

Juniper also is leading the charge into wireless banking. Customers can use their cellular phones to get access to their accounts and pay bills, as long as the payee is registered with the bank. Mr. Brake said the registration requirement is for security and practical purposes. “To register a payee over the phone would be difficult.”

The Gomez report criticized smaller community banks and credit unions. These institutions have not fully embraced the Web in customer acquisition or retention, Gomez said.

Tom Schettino, president of City and Suburban Federal Savings Bank in Yonkers, N.Y., said his institution, like many smaller ones, did not feel a pressing need to serve customers online.

“Our customers are not demanding to have full Internet banking capabilities,” he said. “But eventually our customers will change, and we will be there if we have to.”

The bank has a Web site but it is not interactive, Mr. Schettino said.

The Gomez study also suggested that credit card monolines could enhance their business model by offering more banking products through partnerships.

Jim Rowe, president of global e-commerce at Providian, said his company already offers more than just credit cards through the Internet, but it believes that “the world’s financial supermarkets” cannot be profitable.

“Owning all of the products you sell has not proven to be a viable business model, online or offline,” he said.

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