MIAMI - A fledgling stored value system has managed to edge its way into choice payment slots on well-known merchant Web sites next to the big-leaguers American Express, MasterCard, and Visa.
Flooz, a digital currency usually used for online gift certificates, has only been around since September. But it is now a featured payment option at sites like BarnesandNoble.com, Toysrus.com, and Godiva.com and is being offered as a perk to employees and clients of such companies as Bell Atlantic, Cisco Systems, and Sun Microsystems Inc.
Flooz - the name is an adaptation of a French slang word for cash - is an example of a nonbank company that has thrust itself into the Internet payments system but in a way that apparently helps card companies.
For one thing, people in most cases must use a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card to pay for flooz. For instance, cardholders can charge $50 of flooz and e-mail it to a friend. And payment card executives say that Flooz.com and similar companies seem to be spurring consumer interest in stored value products, many of which have languished in the United States.
At least one credit card company has openly endorsed Flooz.com: NextCard Inc. of San Francisco. The Internet card issuer has invested $27 million for a minority interest in the company and is promoting its currency.
Robert Levitan, chief executive officer of New York-based Flooz.com, said the Internet is a natural launching pad for a stored value product.
"We are back to exchanging value," he said in a speech Monday at the CardTech/SecurTech conference, the largest annual meeting on card and security technology. "We are going to see more of this. It's gotten a lot easier to carry money around."
Mr. Levitan said he sought to distance his product from the crowd of Internet value systems and loyalty systems even while working with them. Beenz.com, Mypoints.com, NetCentives, and FreeRide offer rewards for "doing different things online," he said. Flooz has agreements through which these reward points can be converted into flooz, but it considers itself more of a digital stored value system.
After a consumer buys flooz for someone - or a company gives it to an employee as a reward - it is stored in a personal account and can be used for up to a year for Web shopping. If the recipient wants to buy something that costs more than the flooz in an account, value can be added to it.
It sounds like an electronic gift certificate, but Mr. Levitan insists: "We are not in the business of selling gift certificates - we are selling flooz. We like to look at flooz as a currency that's spendable at many merchants."
More than 6,000 people have either bought flooz or used it to make Internet purchases, and it is accepted by more than 100 merchants, the company said.
Mr. Levitan said that only 1.5 out of 100 visitors to a Web site buy something there and that flooz users are eight times as likely to make a purchase.
He also maintained that flooz can help reduce Web sites' customer acquisition costs - an average he put at $33. Amazon.com said it spends $14 to bring in a customer, but others such as cdNow spend $70, and online brokers like Schwab and E-Trade spend $100, he said.
How does flooz trim these costs?
"We bring them shoppers who have money to spend," Mr. Levitan said.
Companies like Flooz.com have buoyed some stored value enthusiasts. "The marketplace is going to really take off," said Jim McCarthy, senior vice president of member and merchant sales at e-Visa, Visa's Internet division. "It gives us the ability to reach markets that are underserved, like Hispanics or teens."
The smart card stored value test on New York City's Upper West Side two years ago was dismantled after drawing little consumer interest. But a recent revival in stored value - especially for gift certificates but also for salary and expense payments to the unbanked - has put the product back on the map.
Visa is participating in a variety of stored value tests and is developing person-to-person electronic payment technology. The San Francisco card association is working on a "person-to-person service model" with a consortium that will be announced this month, Mr. McCarthy said. The venture will integrate card payments, shipping, and other services.
This will "foster usage and volume growth of Visa cards in these nontraditional environments," Mr. McCarthy said.
"In many cases," he said, payment for online purchases "is taking place offline.
There is a huge benefit to bringing payment online, as flooz has shown."