Citibank has introduced a credit card that is as virtual as the Internet.
The MasterCard product, ClickCredit, is not literally a card. Though consumers get a generic piece of plastic to help them remember their account numbers, it is marked "for on-line use only."
The service is designed to appeal to people interested in Internet shopping but hesitant to complete transactions because of security, privacy, or reliability concerns.
As did American Express Co. with its recent introduction of the Blue credit card with smart card chip, Citibank expects to capitalize on an anticipated boom in on-line holiday season retailing. But though the Blue card seeks to bridge the present and future, the physical and virtual worlds, ClickCredit operates on-line exclusively.
ClickCredit is the first of a series of Internet products and services that can be expected from the bank credit card leader in the next six to 12 months, said Antony Jenkins, vice president and director of Internet initiatives in Citibank's North America cards unit.
He said Wednesday that since Oct. 2, 10 million of Citibank's 40 million U.S. card customers have been invited to apply for the on-line product and "thousands have signed up."
There are two versions of the card: Click Citi AAdvantage and Click Citi Platinum Select, which offer frequent-flier and cash-back rewards, respectively.
The thinking behind the card, for which a major marketing push is under way, is that people will want to keep their on-line activities separate from their regular credit card spending because of fears about security.
"It is a legitimate concern" that the Citigroup Inc. unit hopes to allay, Mr. Jenkins said.
Industry analysts gave ClickCredit mixed reviews. They see it as a clever idea likely to be copied, but they say people may not be as fearful as Citibank assumes.
"It is true that many consumers have to get over an initial hesitation about providing a card number on-line," said Forrester Research analyst Bill Doyle, but ClickCredit is "nothing more than an intermediate step." He said Citigroup will be forced to integrate ClickCredit into accounts that are used in the real world.
Mr. Jenkins said at a press conference that Citigroup is exploring "migration strategies" for the card to operate in the physical world. Mr. Jenkins also said ClickCredit will be "complementary" to digital wallets that Citi is developing.
Given the rebates and other perks, such as a purchase protection program and extended warranties, "there is no downside to the consumer," said David Robertson, president of the industry newsletter The Nilson Report in Oxnard, Calif. He said he expects other banking companies around the world to follow Citibank's lead.
The payments software company Trintech Group in San Mateo, Calif., is marketing such a product, called ezCard, that enables a company to solicit customers, accept applications, evaluate creditworthiness, and open virtual accounts instantaneously.
Comparing ClickCredit with the American Express offering, which requires a smart card reader to be attached to a cardmember's computer, Jupiter Communications Inc. analyst Robert Sterling said, "When you want to make a purchase with Blue, you just have to slip the card into the reader and pull it out, rather than typing. The Blue card has glamour, but it is also compatible with the physical world. I think Amex beat Citi to the punch."
But Citi is describing its virtual card as the latest in a string of consumer innovations that include touch-screen automated teller machines, telephone banking, and on-line banking.
An initiative begun a few months ago draws on-line merchants into the rewards equation.
CitiPlaza, a group of 28 on-line merchants offering discounts to all Citibank card customers, is being marketed as an extra perk for ClickCredit.
Among the larger participating merchants are barnesandnoble.com, DisneyStore.com, IBM, and Time Inc. Newsstand.
Citibank card customers are ripe for ClickCredit, Mr. Jenkins said. Eight thousand of them are signing up each day for Citi on-line, which lets cardholders view their statements, among other things.
"On-line shopping is taking off, and we tried to be ready for that," Mr. Jenkins said.