Visa U.S.A. will offer members of its Plus automated teller machine network the ability to dispense items other than cash.

Visa executives say their program, QuickSnap, will enable banks to offer extras-like postage stamps and prepaid telephone cards-to other banks' customers. Anyone with a Plus card will be able to withdraw the items.

In a test starting today, a few preselected BankAmerica Corp. cardholders will be invited to use Banc One Corp. ATMs in Phoenix to get tickets for tours of the new Bank One Ballpark, home of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks.

If the test is successful-as Visa executives expect-Plus will make QuickSnap available to all members on Jan. 2.

"We watched with interest the proprietary programs that sprung up around the country, that were mostly limited to the dispensing of postage stamps" by banks, said Ronald H. Reed, vice president of ATM products for Visa U.S.A. "We came to the conclusion that there shouldn't be any limits on what can come out of an ATM."

MasterCard International's Cirrus network began offering postage stamps at some machines last spring, and company executives say demand has reached 300 transactions a day. There are plans to expand the program.

"We see an almost unlimited variety of merchandise" that could be offered, said Daniel T. Ciporin, senior vice president of deposit access products at MasterCard. "It's been going phenomenally well."

Though postage stamps seem to be the item consumers favor, Cirrus does plan to add other noncash offerings-like prepaid telephone cards, travelers' checks, and movie tickets-to its ATMs by yearend.

Mr. Ciporin could not specify how many Cirrus members are offering the extras, but said that "very large members and processors" are participating, including Wells Fargo & Co., BankBoston Corp., First American Corp., and Electronic Data Systems Corp. Cirrus has 150 million ATM cardholders and 315,000 locations in nearly 100 countries.

To enable the transactions, banks and processors must get their ATM cards certified for noncash use by the MasterCard Debit Switch, Mr. Ciporin said. About 80% of Cirrus cards are certified now, and the rest will be certified by April 1, he said.

The new transactions "essentially amount to a purchase at an ATM," Mr. Ciporin said. "We think the ATM is a wonderful distribution point for all kinds of goods and services, and we aim to facilitate those kinds of transactions."

To date, most banks that have experimented with advanced-function ATMs have used them to dispense stamps, phone cards, or transit tickets. But network executives envision a day when ATMs in New York, for example, will dispense tickets to Broadway shows, and ATMs in shopping malls will offer gift certificates.

"We see it evolving over time into a virtual ticket outlet," Mr. Reed said. Applications of the technology will be "limited only by the issuers' imaginations."

And their hardware. Any bank that chooses to participate in noncash ATM programs must have newer machines equipped with multiple canisters.

Visa will send letters to Plus members over the next few weeks explaining what equipment they need and how to sign up for the program, Mr. Reed said. That way, he said, banks can make the changes necessary to support the service by the beginning of next year.

Plus, founded in 1982 as Plus System Inc., was purchased by Visa in 1996. The network supports 141,000 ATMs from more than 9,000 financial institutions, Mr. Reed said. About 212 million cards carry the Plus system mark.

Michael A. Strada, president of Electronic Commerce Strategies Inc. of Atlanta and former chief executive officer of the Honor network, said QuickSnap sounded "interesting" and "slick."

The ability to offer noncash merchandise "opens up the gate to any number of things," he said.

Until now, Mr. Strada said, efforts to dispense noncash items at ATMs have been "more defined," with a bank offering, say, movie or ski-lift tickets to its customers in a narrow geographic area.

With QuickSnap, "you could have 20 different things going on at the same time depending on what ATM you use," said Mr. Strata, who worked at Plus before joining Honor.

Mr. Reed likens Plus to a railroad that provides tracks among member banks. The QuickSnap program, he said, gives banks "the ability to put whatever they want on, in terms of a boxcar."

ATM executives said they are hopeful that the enhanced ATMs will make surcharges more palatable to consumers.

A survey commissioned by NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, found that many consumers want their banks to provide additional services-like event ticketing, coupons, and even Internet access-through ATMs.

The survey of 750 consumers, conducted in shopping malls across the country, found that 32% agreed it was fair to pay fees for ordinary ATM use. When asked if fees were justified when an ATM performed more advanced functions, 37% of respondents said "yes." And 42% of people 18 to 35 said they would pay extra to use enhanced machines.

"Consumers have long understood the convenience that ATMs have brought to banking," said Lars Nyberg, NCR's chairman and chief executive officer. "Now they're hearing about the extra capabilities of the new generation of ATMs-such as bill payment, ticketing, and arranging loans-and they want their banks to provide them."

A small game of one-upmanship has taken shape as networks vie to provide bonus goods. Plus is claiming a first, saying its Bank One ticket experiment will represent the first time anything other than postage stamps has been purveyed over a national network. "Our service is much broader" than what Cirrus is doing, Mr. Reed said.

But Cirrus scoffs at the distinction. "We're well beyond the pilot stage-we're into full-scale implementation," Mr. Ciporin said. "We're very pleased our good friends over at Plus are following our lead."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.