About $36 billion is likely to be spent at Web "e-tail" stores this year, up 145 percent from 1998. That estimate comes from Shop.org, a trade association for online retailers. Stressed-out workers are learning the value of e-shopping during their lunch breaks, or at midnight from their computer at home.
And for the first time, you're seeing an explosion of Internet credit cards. "Some of the very best and very worst cards are now offered on the Web," says Robert McKinley, president of CardWeb, a credit-card tracking service (www.cardweb.com).
With a Web card, you apply online, get statements electronically or by mail, monitor your account online and pay by computer, too. Old-fashioned folk still can opt to pay by check.
For people seeking more credit this holiday season, the special appeal of Web cards is their speed. You give the same information you would in a mailed application. Approval, assuming you qualify, might come in just half a minute. From that moment, you can make purchases online.
Most issuers mail you a card, usually a Visa or MasterCard, that you can also use in stores.
Citibank's ClickCredit (www.clickcredit.com), on the other hand, is solely for Web purchases. Still, it offers the usual credit-card bells and whistles, such as frequent-flier miles and cash-back rewards. The most desirable customers pay no annual fee and a 9.9 percent variable interest rate on unpaid balances. Poorer credit risks pay 18.55 percent and perhaps a $50 annual fee.
Here are McKinley's two favorite cards on the Web, plus the low rates they offer their better customers. Each has an introductory program, with low or zero rates for the first few months. Neither charges an annual fee. Who's a "better customer"? People who make payments on time and carry unpaid balances, or at least use their cards a lot. If you don't qualify, these issuers will charge you more.
* Wingspan Platinum Visa (www.wingspan.com), issued by BankOne, at a fixed 9.99 percent rate. With Wingspan, you get 5 percent off the cost of online purchases from 28 merchants.
* NextCard Visa (www.nextcard.com), issued by NextBank. You apply for a standard card with a fixed 15.9 percent rate. Once approved, you could be offered a rate as low as 9.9 percent, depending on your credit profile.
"That's fuzzy pricing," McKinley concedes, but he likes NextCard's rich rewards program. You get more frequent-flier miles per dollar spent than on any other card. But to get them free, you have to carry unpaid balances.
When checking a card's Web site, always click on the phrase "terms and conditions" to see what else the issuer may charge. For example, both of these cards punish people who pay late, pay less than the minimum or go over their credit limit.
Transgressors lose their low fixed rates. NextCard currently charges as much as 23.2 percent on unpaid balances, for those who pay less than the minimum. Wingspan goes to 22.99 percent for certain late payers.
Web credit cards provide the same fraud protection you'd get from any other credit card. Officially, you're liable for the first $50 in fraudulent charges. Most issuers, however, cover even that.
As for the bad apples, McKinley names three: Future Card Visa, First National Credit Card Visa, and Global 1 Visa or MasterCard. They charge big upfront fees, substantial monthly fees and high interest rates. Global 1, for example, charges $348 in setup fees, against a minimum credit limit of just $375--which wouldn't leave you much to spend. First National charges $169, against a credit limit as small as $250. Even if your limit is higher, you're starting out in debt to the bank.
Global and Future didn't return calls. First National's Molly Fleming calls high fees the natural result of accepting people with poor credit.
Please--if you have poor credit, skip these cheesy offers and use a secured card instead. With secured cards, you also pay money upfront, but it goes into your own interest-paying savings account. The bank taps that money only if you don't pay your bills.
McKinley's two favorite secured cards: Amalgamated Bank of Chicago (1-800-365-6464; $500 minimum deposit) and Orchard Bank in Portland, Ore. (1-888-611-4487; $200 minimum).