American Express' Serve prepaid account has its roots as a digital wallet, but the card issuer is finding many of its enrollments are coming through a very non-digital process: in-person activations at mobile phone stores.

Serve is integrated with the Isis wallet, which was created by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile to enable contactless Near Field Communication payments from the carriers' handsets. Isis allows consumers to link certain Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase cards as well as Amex's Serve prepaid card. Consumers can get a Serve account when they first sign up for Isis.

Serve enrollments through the carriers are "through the roof," says Stefan Happ, Amex's senior vice president and general manager of online, mobile and Serve. He would not provide specific figures, but said much of this success can be attributed to the carriers' sales staff. "That right now is the biggest driver of Isis and Serve adoption," he said in an interview at SourceMedia's 2014 Card Forum and Expo in Orlando, Fla.

Serve accounts get a boost whenever a popular new smartphone comes out, such as Samsung's Galaxy S5. As consumers go to carrier stores to buy a new phone, each carrier's sales staff offers to set up the buyer with an Isis account. In the process, many are opening Serve accounts.

"There's a significant contribution that a sales rep in a store makes," he says. "That is the bread and butter of what the carriers do in the store."

Ninety percent of Serve customers are new or returning Amex customers and over half are under the age of 35. Through the carrier signup process, Isis and Amex are able to reach a significant number of underserved consumers, Happ says. Though he would not say how many Isis and Serve users fit this category, he said a third of Isis customers who sign up have an income of less than $50,000; the product targets those making up to $150,000.

Isis and its carriers are also funding several aggressive promotions to encourage new enrollments and continuous use. For example, AT&T is offering new Serve customers a $50 credit if they sign up by May 15 and it gives Serve users a $1 statement credit for every purchase made through the end of June (limited to $50 per month). Isis is separately offering New York taxi passengers a credit of 50% of their ride's value when they pay with Isis, with a limit of $100.

Consumers can also sign up for Serve from within the Isis app, but this process requires the user to wait several minutes to activate the phone's secure element for NFC payments and requires users to leave the app for authentication purposes when linking a card.

Amex is working with the individual carriers to streamline enrollment through carrier data integration. The carriers already have customer personal information such as addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers, and it can pass along the relevant information to Amex so that the customer does not need to type it in a second time.

This process is already in place at Verizon and will go live at AT&T "within the next several weeks," Happ says.

Amex is also working to improve the technology behind the Serve prepaid card. It is expanding its reload network, which allows consumers to add funds to their Serve accounts by swiping the Serve card at the point of sale. Its network includes CVS and 7-Eleven and added Walmart this week.

"Cards have proven remarkably resilient, particularly in the U.S.," so it is important to support the users who prefer to use Serve as a card, Happ says. But Amex is not moving away from Serve's roots as a digital wallet. "If and when cards go away, we are ready," he says.

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