Nobody knows just when U.S. consumers will be able to charge all manner of purchases to a credit card using a wireless telephone, but the credit card companies and phone carriers are preparing for that day.
Consumers in some European companies can already do this, and mobile phone providers are building an infrastructure that will make it happen in the United States. For instance, eCharge Corp. of Seattle offers a product that lets people charge goods bought through the Internet directly to their phone bills. Credit card industry executives expect that letting people use their cell phones as point of sale terminals will help take market share away from cash and checks, and they are adjusting their companies' technology accordingly.
"We do not know how people will use their phones to transact, but we want to be in position to define how it will be done," said Armen Khachadourian, senior vice president of new market development at Visa U.S.A.
Visa's recent marketing deal with Sprint PCS of Overland Park, Kan., is an example of the ways the association is preparing for one-click phone transactions charged to credit cards as an everyday practice. People can already charge the monthly bills for their wireless telephone service to any credit card they want, but Sprint has agreed to encourage its 23 million customers (and new ones signing up for phones) to charge their bills to a Visa credit or debit card. Sprint will put Visa promotional materials in its stores, and people who already use Sprint phones will get promotional fliers in their bills.
"This is a great loyalty program," Mr. Khachadourian said. "There is 30% less attrition when the consumer uses a card for recurring payments. We will work with Sprint to see what the consumer wants to do."
Sprint's 2000 sales were $23 billion. If all that revenue were charged to Visa credit cards, Mr. Khachadourian said, it would double Visa's revenue from recurring charges, which stood at $23.2 billion a year in September 2000. Even better, he said, is the deal's potential to put Visa in the catbird seat when telecommunications providers find ways to offer their customers phone payment options.
Visa has developed software it says will be particularly useful for phone charges. The Account Updator Program can automatically refresh Sprint's files with new card numbers when an account holder's card expires or is transferred to a new account. This spares merchants the headache of asking for a new credit card number when an old one on file expires.
A spokeswoman for Sprint would not detail the types of payment options it might develop with Visa. Mr. Khachadourian said that right now, new mobile card payment plans were "all hypothesis of how it will work," but he mentioned Exxon/Mobil's SpeedPass transponder device for paying for gas at the pump as an example.
The Yankee Group research firm in Boston projects that by 2005, $50 billion of purchases will be made on mobile phones, even though "there is almost no possibility to use your phone to buy things right in front of you" today, said Adam Zawel, program manager of mobile commerce planning services at Yankee Group.
"It is a matter of getting ready," he said. "You will see more deals like this one."
Mr. Zawel suggested that the two companies may be working on something "behind-the-scenes" to help mobile purchasing get a toehold in the United States. In Europe, he said, consumers are more likely to use mobile phones for payment. In some countries consumers can use mobile phones to pay parking meters or to download cartoons to their phone displays.
In the past Visa has experimented with various forms of mobile phone marketing and payment, including a study conducted with the wireless marketer SkyGo of San Francisco, which tested consumers' reactions to receiving advertising via mobile phone. For three months in late 2000, a thousand residents of Boulder, Colo., were given cell phones that could receive up to three advertisements a day.
The experiment ended with some new behavioral lessons - among the findings were that consumers seem to like mobile phone ads that offer up trivia questions - but failed to uncover a strong desire to pay for goods with a mobile phone. Consumers were irked when ads popped up on their phone displays that simply touted a product, with no interactive gimmicks or special discounts. Ads that offered a so-called click-to-call option received the lowest response of all.
Visa is betting that if telecommunications providers move ahead with phone payments, it will have an early-adopter edge. Its parent, Visa International, is exporting this philosophy by making an agreement with Yahoo Inc. to become the default payment card on its non-U.S. shopping Web site; any Yahoo Country Web site whose operator wishes to issue a cobranded card agrees to make it a Visa card.
MasterCard International's recurring-payments division is also focusing on telecommunications services providers to pitch its service, and all the major providers, including Sprint PCS, let monthly charges be put on a MasterCard as well. According to a study MasterCard commissioned, consumers' favorite bills to pay by credit card are - in order - Internet service, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, cable television fees, and telecommunications bills.