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Credit cards are a crucial part of online shopping. (STELIOS VARIAS/STELIOS VARIAS/REUTERS)
Credit cards are a crucial part of online shopping. (STELIOS VARIAS/STELIOS VARIAS/REUTERS)

For smart investors, it's not where people shop but how they pay Add to ...

The other day, my family began to order weekly baskets of organic fruits and veggies over the Internet, shifting one more shopping experience online. Apart from fresh milk, there’s not much drawing us to physical stores any more.

You can probably relate. Online shopping saves us from parking hassles, lineups and having to answer the question, “Did you find everything you were looking for today?”

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The stock market has recognized this broad shift among consumers: Online retailer Amazon.com Inc. is now valued at more than $100-billion (U.S.), or more than the combined the value of Home Depot Inc., Gap Inc. and Best Buy Co. Inc.

The problem with making Amazon.com your go-to stock for playing the shift toward online shopping, though, is that it comes with considerable risk.

With the shares up 270 per cent over the past five years, they now trade at an amazing 190-times earnings, which implies that the stock is priced for explosive growth in the years ahead, without so much as a hiccup in the company’s operations.

A better bet? Consider MasterCard Inc. and Visa Inc. , two credit card companies that stand to benefit every time you click “proceed to checkout.”

Their close association with online shopping – where cash doesn’t get you very far – is hardly a revelation. It helps explain why MasterCard shares have risen more than 200 per cent over the past five years and why Visa has raised its dividend substantially every year since going public in 2008.

And while the broader stock market has struggled to return to heights seen before the financial crisis, both Visa and MasterCard are more than 30 per cent above their 2008 high points.

But as valuations go, both stocks look like the most rational way to hive off some of the billions of dollars being spent online.

Both Visa and MasterCard trade at about 21 times trailing earnings. That is in line with their historical trends and looks relatively attractive given that their earnings are growing at an impressive clip. In the most recent quarter, Visa’s adjusted earnings rose 29 per cent from the same quarter last year.

Sure, some concerns are weighing on both companies. New U.S. regulations on debit card transaction fees are creating some uncertainty about future earnings growth. There are also worries that online payment upstarts – along with the established PayPal – are grabbing market share.

However, Visa and MasterCard are hardly threatened in any substantial way. They are fighting the upstarts with their own versions of one-click “digital wallets.”

And as for threats to earnings, well, Visa actually raised its 2012 profit forecast when it delivered its latest quarterly earnings in early May, reflecting rising confidence.

No wonder. If online shopping continues to grow in popularity, it’s hard to imagine credit card companies being left behind.

Follow on Twitter: @dberman_ROB

 
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