By a number of measures and anecdotal evidence, 1995 was the year that on-line debit finally came into its own.

Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International reported 83% and 155% growth, respectively, in the number of locations that accept their Interlink and Maestro cards.

At the same time, on-line debit transactions spurred double-digit point of sale growth at many of the regional electronic banking networks. Bank Network News reported a nationwide increase of 36.9% for the year, calculating from regional networks' September 1995 activity.

"There's no doubt that debit, from the consumers' perspective, has come of age," said Richard T. Robida, senior executive vice president of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Speer & Associates.

Underscoring the trend was triple-digit growth in the card associations' off-line products, Visa Check and MasterMoney. Off-line debit transactions clear with a delay, like credit card payments, while on-line debits are generally immediate.

Mr. Robida sees "debit as a concept" meeting "more widespread consumer acceptance," with the success of off-line services feeding the on-line programs.

Visa said 1,083 financial institutions issued 32 million Interlink cards as of yearend 1995. MasterCard's Maestro organization reported 828 institutions had issued 22.4 million cards. Millions more cards bear the logos of regional networks.

Acceptance of debit cards has expanded well beyond relatively isolated areas, such as California, where Interlink got its start, but there are still many states and regions where the service has not caught on.

"You can come to California and use the card to buy groceries, to buy gas, and to buy a hot dog," said Karen Brown, a consultant with Torrance, Calif.-based Benton International. "But if you go to Kansas, you can't use the card."

Carl Stefanelli, vice president of acceptance, Maestro U.S.A., acknowledged that on-line debit has a way to go. "As an industry, I do think we're getting to the point in some parts of the country that we have reached critical mass," he said.

He estimated that if 300,000 to 400,000 stores agree to sign up, on-line debit will have achieved the necessary "critical mass."

At yearend, Visa said 95,000 merchants accepted Interlink; MasterCard said 86,404 took Maestro.

However, Mr. Robida said the merchant number "in due course has to be considerably higher than that, given that there are several million merchants in the United States."

Debit proponents agree that large retailers, especially in malls, pose the largest hurdle and greatest potential for on-line debit. Wal-Mart, Benetton, and Kmart, and Target are among national chains that have signed on.

"Those retailers alone create competitive consciousness on the part of every retailer in the country," Mr. Stefanelli said. "The psychology of a retailer is, if they're doing it, there must be something right about it."

Nikki Waters, senior vice president and director of marketing for Star System Inc., San Diego, said the cost to retailers has thus far been prohibitive. Also, stores fear they will sell fewer big-ticket items if consumers begin to make debit cards their primary choice.

Thomas O. Bennion, president of Southeast Switch, the Maitland, Fla., company that operates the Honor automated teller network, said "consumers are beginning to understand more about what (debit) is, which makes merchants more aware."

Maestro believes the next segment to embrace on-line debit will be specialty retailers. It is also marketing to municipal transportation systems, wire transfer services, movie theaters, florists, discount retailers, chain drug stores, and fast-food restaurants.

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