Now that two credit card issuers have come forward with products tailored to Internet users, the market may begin to indicate whether there is demand for such cards, experts say.
Though Internet shoppers can use almost any card to buy goods and services on-line, two companies have stepped forward to offer products particularly valuable when used on the Web. Both are Visa branded, and both can be used in the physical and the virtual world.
The Yahoo! platinum Visa card debuted in late February, a few weeks after First USA of Wilmington, Del., announced the product.
In between First USA's announcement and product introduction, a community bank in San Jose, Calif., Heritage Bank of Commerce, entered the arena with NextCard, which is also aimed at on-line customers. Heritage's Visa card was developed by a two-year-old San Francisco company, Internet Access Financial Corp.
Some observers immediately placed their bets on the Yahoo! card. For one thing, First USA is a major credit card issuer, whereas Heritage Bank has never issued a card before NextCard. For another, First USA has an Internet partner with one of the most recognized brands associated with the Internet.
Richard G. Barlow, president of Frequency Marketing Inc., based in Milford, Ohio, says the First USA card's ties to Yahoo! give it credibility with "Webheads."
"I think this card is a very sharp move by Yahoo and First USA, as long as the points are redeemable for compelling benefits," he said. Yahoo! was one of the first search engines on the World Wide Web, and it offers a variety of related services.
Jeremy Lent, co-founder and chief executive officer of Internet Access Financial Corp., said he did not see First USA's size or the Yahoo! name as obstacles to his product's success. "Size doesn't equate with success in the credit card business," Mr. Lent said.
The two products are touting some similar features. Customers can view statements and transactions on-line. To bolster confidence in the security of on-line shopping, both companies guarantee cardholders a 100% refund for fraudulent purchases made on the card.
The no-fee Yahoo! card carries a low fixed-interest rate of 9.9%. NextCard's rates vary: Applicants who are approved are given the option of several rates, on the basis of their credit profiles.
NextCard also offers immediate on-line responses to applications. "I'd suggest the 'NextCard challenge' to everybody who's thinking about applying for the Yahoo! card," Mr. Lent said.
Unlike NextCard, the Yahoo! card takes applications by telephone. Another distinguishing feature is its rewards program: First USA is offering reward points redeemable from such prominent on-line merchants as Amazon.com, CDnow, Sharper Image, and Toys.com. Cardholders earn one reward point for every dollar of purchases made on- or off-line.
The Internet is "a very efficient way to market credit cards," said Carter Warren, executive vice president of cobranding for First USA, a unit of Banc One Corp.
Even more important, Ms. Warren said, is "that Yahoo! has developed a loyal following. The strength of their brand is more important to us than the medium."
Diane Hunt, Yahoo! director of corporate communications, said that about 26 million adults use the company's service in a typical month.
"Yahoo! represents a very significant portal on the Internet," she said. "First USA has a very good understanding of the potential of the Internet, and they are well positioned to facilitate business transactions" there.
Mr. Barlow said the Internet presents peculiar challenges to a credit card issuer.
"Card marketers should not address customers on the Web the same way they address customers in all other marketing channels," he cautioned. "The Web is an environment where people can maintain their anonymity. In order to get people to offer information about themselves, marketers will have to be more aggressive in exchanging value for information."