Vaughn Benjamin is every bit the booster Visa should be seeking to promote the smart card program running in tandem with the Olympic Games.

A New Yorker in Atlanta for the festivities, Mr. Benjamin bought five Visa Cash cards - one for each family member.

"I don't like coins in my pocket, they ruin my suit," Mr. Benjamin said after using his card to pay for coffee and hot chocolate in the Peachtree Center downtown.

Visa U.S.A. and the banks issuing its cash replacement - First Union, NationsBank, and Wachovia - can only hope that everyone "gets it" the way Mr. Benjamin does. But for all the fanfare surrounding this showcase of new payment technology, the innovation isn't winning any gold medals - at least not before the games conclude next weekend.

The research firm Brittain & Associates estimated that 6% of Atlanta shoppers had bought Visa Cash cards since their introduction in mid-May.

Whether this means the smart card glass is one-twentieth full or nineteen-twentieths empty, the Atlanta firm's president, Bruce Brittain, rated the response so far as "tepid."

A Banc One Corp. executive, in town for the first week of the Olympics, harshly pronounced it "a big bust."

As might be expected, Visa put a different spin on things: It is exceeding expectations.

"There's a huge clamoring from consumers for the cards," said Michael Beindorff, executive vice president for marketing and product management. "We're seeing transactions go through the roof."

Visa said volume had grown from 44,604 transactions in June, the first full month of operation, to 98,961 in the first 24 days of July. In dollars, it grew from $146,051 in June to $372,622 in July, and the per- transaction average from $3.27 to $3.77.

Since the Olympics' opening ceremony 10 days ago, 16,462 transactions took place within official Olympic venues, totaling $107,878, for a $6.55 average.

Citing weekly tracking surveys in metropolitan Atlanta, Visa said 70% of Atlantans were aware of the card and 20% wanted one.

"If Coke launched a new product and within two months had 20% of people saying they wanted it, you'd be looking at Diet Coke," said Mr. Beindorff, a former marketing executive for the Atlanta-based soft drink giant.

"Awareness and response are phenomenal," he said.

But Mr. Brittain said only 36% of 378 consumers he surveyed at Lenox Square, a major regional shopping mall, had heard of the stored-value cards. He suspected that NationsBank's giveaway of $5 cards to the 85,000 people attending the opening ceremony may have spurred usage.

Among the crowds downtown, where the bulk of the 1,500 card-accepting merchants and 4,200 Visa Cash terminals are located, awareness was high, but several people questioned the cards' value.

Tim Weaver, an economic analyst for BellSouth Corp., said the cards would have to be accepted at more places before he'd buy one. He and several others questioned at random complained that the cards are easier to lose than cash and would encourage spending.

"This isn't going to fly," Mr. Weaver said.

Mary Pitts, an Atlanta native, said the "concept sounded great" but she was frustrated that she couldn't use the cards "anywhere for anything."

Brian Michael, a spectator at an Olympic weight lifting event, said he "would highly recommend not buying" Visa Cash. He purchased a $50 NationsBank card to buy souvenirs but was disappointed to find it usable only at places like Blimpies, Texaco, General Cinemas, and fast-food outlets at the competition venues. He said he'd like a refund.

"The fact that they want more merchants is really a benefit to us," said Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella. "It's the best problem you can have."

Of 20,000 merchant locations in Atlanta, 1,500 accept Visa Cash.

As an Atlanta Olympics sponsor - a local complement to Visa's global sponsorship - NationsBank won exclusive rights to sell the cash cards and sign up merchants at competition sites. Of the 4,200 terminals in Atlanta, 160 are in seven arenas.

Julie Turner Davis, a NationsBank spokeswoman, said Visa Cash is geared to small-value purchases, such as food and beverages, rather than the bigger-ticket items in souvenir shops.

"We anticipated small-dollar transactions," said Ken Tromer, First Union's area director of sales for card products. "We've also found consumers are willing to use (the cards) for larger purchases."

Visa's Mr. Beindorff said the current program is "so unique" that judgment should be reserved for a more everyday test environment, such as post-Olympics Atlanta when acceptance locations will triple. Banks are committed to the program at least through yearend, he said, when they will evaluate the results.

In common with the Olympics in general, which were plagued by traffic snarls and computer glitches, "there were some bugs," said Mr. Beindorff. But the Atlanta launching "gave us a world-class stage to generate awareness, excitement, noise."

Mr. Pascarella said if the Atlanta experience is any indication, "the technology we use in the U.S. will change (to chip cards) faster than anyone would have expected."

Mr. Tromer said the launching was "perfect" for a test, building quickly to significant volumes that will accelerate the learning curve.

Mr. Brittain was "not too optimistic that it will be a moneymaker for the banks," but he added, "I'm not willing to write off anything with this much money behind it."

As the numbers indicate, Mr. Benjamin, the New Yorker, was not the only consumer giving Visa Cash a thumbs up.

Clint Heavrin, who got hooked by a First Union giveaway at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, recently bought another $20 card. He used it to buy snacks during men's gymnastics in the Georgia Dome and said he also found it convenient on Marta, the rapid transit system.

Linda Josey, a Marta station foreman, recently got a card as a gift. She likes not having to worry about change. "If I forget to bring money, I have a card ... I think it will go nationwide."

Anne Morgan Moore, president of the Atlanta-based bank consulting firm Synergistics Research, spoke more as an observer than from a professional standpoint: "The advertising has been great. The design on the cards is great for collecting. The biggest problem is finding a place to use the card.

"It takes time for something new and different to change basic habits."

Mickey Meece contributed to this article.

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