Early results from card issuers that have introduced digital wallets suggest that the products so far appeal to a limited group of customers but that people who use them are fierce loyalists who buy and spend more on their credit cards online.
Though the first digital wallets offered little more than the sometimes unreliable ability to fill in merchant purchase forms, issuers persisted in refining the concept in the hope of developing a shopping tool with mass appeal. Today most of the top 10 card issuers offer a digital wallet with such features as disposable card numbers, free e-mail addresses, or price-comparison abilities.
Evidence is mounting that issuers' persistence in tweaking the digital wallet is beginning to pay off.
Issuers are tight-lipped about the numbers of people who have downloaded their wallets. This suggests that the numbers are not that high, but credit card company executives say with unanimity that wallet users are zealous about the technology.
"Those people who use Concierge spent 30% more than those who don't have electronic wallets," said John Hashman, president and chief executive officer of NextCard Inc., a San Francisco Internet-oriented issuer. "They keep higher balances on the cards, and are more loyal to their credit card."
NextCard has offered a digital wallet called the NextCard Concierge since 1999, and the product has attained "a significant penetration of the active customer base," he said.
Digital wallets need to offer customers something they value, and filling forms is not enough to boost the products' popularity, Mr. Hashman said. One of NextCard Concierge's most popular features is its comparison-shopping service, he said. "We have integrated our shopping tools to find the best price once you find what you want to buy. A lot of people like that."
Mr. Hashman said NextCard is constantly looking for features to add to its wallet and that he has given some consideration to adding disposable credit card numbers. He is also considering issuing a smart card that would carry some of the information currently stored in the digital wallet.
James H. Rowe, president of global e-commerce at Providian Financial Corp. of San Francisco, said that overall, "wallet technology has improved." He says digital wallet usage has increased at Providian Web sites, but will not give any numbers. "It has gone beyond niche, but is still not a broadly used technology across the country."
The company offers digital wallets developed by Brodia of San Francisco at its Providian and Aria Web sites. A spokeswoman for Brodia said downloads of the company's wallet during the holiday season last year tripled from a year earlier.
Discover Financial Services launched its latest digital wallet, called deskshop 2.0, in November. The Riverwoods, Ill., unit of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. was the first company to offer a Brodia-supplied wallet that includes disposable card number technology provided by Orbiscom Inc.
Deskshop also offers merchant discounts and a free e-mail account for collecting messages from merchants. Colleen Zambole, vice president of e-commerce at Discover, said the company was still evaluating customer usage over the holidays. Cardholders who shopped online used their Discover cards more than non-Internet users, she said. "People who come to the site are people who use their card."
A favorite feature, particularly for some customers, is the disposable card numbers, Ms. Zambole said. "When customers shop at smaller merchants, not Amazon or Barnes & Noble, they like the surrogate account number technology."
Gator.com, a Redwood City, Calif., digital wallet vendor, said it has had more downloads of its software - 10 million - than any other wallet provider.
John F. W. Hunt, CEO of Obongo Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., said his company provides wallet software to Citibank USA and NextCard, but would only release usage numbers for one of its clients, ZDNet, an online technology publisher.
ZDNet began offering the Obongo toolbar to its Web site's 10 million users in April, and the site has generated 750,000 installations of the wallet, Mr. Hunt said. That does not necessarily mean 750,000 different people; the average wallet user installs the wallet on 1.8 computers, probably because many consumers shop online from both home and work, he said.
The most popular feature on the Obongo wallet is password storage, which allows users to store user names and passwords for many Web sites on the wallet, Mr. Hunt said.
Obongo says customers complete transactions more frequently than nonwallet users. "People who go to Amazon transact 5% of the time," he said. "People who go to Amazon with Obongo transact 20% of the time."
Brodia CEO Ron Martinez said issuers probably will keep promoting a technology that can make the card "jump from nowhere into the user's hand when it is time to pay." The next wallet feature Brodia will offer will be person-to-person payments. This will let customers open a digital wallet and take a few dollars out to repay a loan or give a gift online.