Shortly after American Express Co. notified customers it was pulling the plug on its digital wallet, a second Internet-savvy financial services firm, Wells Fargo & Co., has announced it is doing the same.
In an e-mail message last week, Wells Fargo told people who had used Wells Fargo EasyOrder that the Internet form-filler was "not meeting the needs of our customers," and it would be discontinued Aug. 17. Two years ago digital wallets - which store a customer's shipping and payment information, among other things, and are supposed to insert it automatically into merchant order forms - were considered must-haves by many financial services companies, which quickly began introducing products so as not to be left behind.
But consumers have not embraced the products in a big way, and opinion seems to be growing in the industry that they are more cumbersome than helpful.
In June, when American Express discontinued its online wallet for holders of its Blue smart card, a company spokesman said it was not very convenient, because it did not do a very good job of form-filling.
Last week a Wells Fargo spokeswoman expressed the same view. "Only a fraction of 1%" of its customers ever used Wells Fargo EasyOrder in the first place, so the company did not feel it was worthwhile to maintain the wallet, she said.
Wells Fargo had developed the wallet with help from Brodia, the San Francisco-based market leader in the digital wallet business. Its wallets are offered on the Web sites of several card issuers, including MBNA Corp., Capital One Financial Corp., Providian Financial Corp., and Discover Financial Services, whose parent company, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., made an investment in Brodia.
Julie Tarlton, Brodia's director of marketing, said Wells was one of the first companies to offer one of its products - Wells Fargo EasyOrder was piloted in late 1999 and officially launched in June 2000.
"The focus then was on shopping," she said. "Wallets are moving to more of a security function" now, particularly for mobile devices and as a partner device to one-time-use credit card numbers. Some of Brodia's other financial services customers report much higher rates of digital wallet use than Wells Fargo, Ms. Tarlton said.
The Wells Fargo spokeswoman said she has no plans to revisit the issue of digital wallets unless customers express a desire to have one, said the spokeswoman. "Our commitment to customer-driven solutions on the Internet requires that we are testing cutting-edge services. The decision to discontinue is an example of how we apply that test and learn."
John V. Hashman, chief executive officer of NextCard Inc., said that even though his company caters to Internet enthusiasts, the digital wallet NextCard offers is not very popular. People who use the wallet love it, he said, "but penetration rates overall in the portfolio, even in our portfolio, are pretty low.
"Our penetration rate is probably a much, much higher number than other people's, but it's still pretty small."
The experiences of American Express and Wells Fargo run counter to a survey MasterCard International released in June, which said that a healthy 17% of online shoppers had used a digital wallet.
Wells Fargo also told a different story a year ago when it officially launched its wallet. "The difference between monoline credit card companies and us is we have really sticky applications," Cathy Graeber, then a senior vice president of consumer Internet services for Wells Fargo, said at the time. "Our customers are coming to us a few times a week, and they've said the more we can give them to do at our site, the more they'll come." (Ms. Graeber is now a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Boston.)
One of Wells Fargo's main objectives for EasyOrder was to stimulate traffic to its Web site, the company said then.
Financial industry consultants, who have tended to run cool on digital wallets, say that customers just won't go through the bother of installing them.
"The digital wallet is a reasonably useful concept, but it is too marginally useful to customers to get them to change their behavior," said Christopher E. Musto, vice president of research at Gomez Advisors of Waltham, Mass. "No one else is reporting that it is going gangbusters, either."