DALLAS - Card companies are racing to inject their products with advanced technology - integrated circuit chips, advanced Internet functionality, and the like - but consumers are most concerned with having familiar and dependable products that work quickly and easily, according to speakers at last week's Card Marketing Conference.
Chip cards, person-to-person Internet payments, and online bill presentment may be all the rage among financial services companies, but speakers at the conference, which was sponsored by Thomson Financial Media, the parent company of American Banker, said the technology may have outstripped customer demand.
William C. Scheurer, president and founder of PocketCard Inc., which markets a prepaid card for teenagers, pointed to the Blue Card from American Express Co., the first smart card to hit the U.S. market. He said Blue was a "brilliant move" from a marketing perspective - he said he owned one himself - but he questioned the necessity of the chip on the card.
Mr. Scheurer said that much of what chip cards offer is already available to consumers in other ways. Credit card networks already have ways to authenticate merchants and consumers to one another, he said: "All of the intelligence is embedded in the system."
A recent survey by Brittain Associates Inc., an Atlanta market research firm and consulting firm, concluded that five million people have opened American Express Blue card accounts - two million of them in the last six months - but the complexity of hooking up a card reader and getting the software installed has kept most people from using the chip as a security feature.
While Europe, particularly France, is ahead of the United States in terms of chip cards as well as wireless technology, "that's not necessarily a bad thing for the U.S. industry," Mr. Scheurer said. Chip cards, he said, have not caught on in the United States as was hoped "because our infrastructure didn't require it."
Mr. Scheurer characterized technological innovation in Darwinian terms: What survives is not necessarily the most striking but the most flexible. He said he thought prepaid cards for teenagers, such as the one his company markets, would be survivors because they let people move funds instantly from one account to another. "The jury is still out on the PocketCard, Visa Buxx, and Cobalt, but the underlining capabilities are not," he said.
Todd Rice, who works in the Citibank e-commerce group, said technology succeeds only when it makes transactions faster and simpler for customers. He said the online applications Citibank offers for credit cards provide the "instant gratification that people have come to expect on the Internet." Electronic wallets that fill out long merchant applications also add speed, he said.
William F. Keenan, president of a card consultancy, De Novo Corp., said one of the best ways for marketers to understand the needs of online customers is "sniffing," or nosing around the Internet to find people in chat rooms and the like who are exchanging ideas.
"Your product could fit into what they're talking about," he said. And if you come across a good idea, "steal, steal, steal. If they're good ideas, don't be bashful to steal it," Mr. Keenan said.