After five consecutive years of double-digit growth in point-of-sale debit transactions, bankers are asking themselves how to make a good thing even better.
Nationwide, according to Bank Network News, debit POS transactions grew 52% between 1993 and 1994, compared with growth of only 8% for ATM transactions over the same period.
"POS debit represents the most immediate opportunity for growth," said Richard P. Yanak, chief executive officer of Infinet Payment Services, the New Jersey-based operator of the NYCE regional network.
"We have reached critical mass with debit card issuance," said Una Somerville, a Visa vice president with debit card responsibilities. "And we have reached critical mass with debit card usage."
Ms. Somerville suggested that the time has come to leave behind the conventional definition of a debit card as an enhanced automated teller machine card with some purchasing capabilities at the point of sale.
Instead, she said, bankers should take a more progressive view of the debit card as the key that unlocks a universe of consumer transactions.
To this end, debit card professionals are exploring myriad ideas intended to boost debit card use, including adding new merchant categories for acceptance, educating consumers who are not yet using the cards, setting up cobranding alliances, and looking for other opportunities to parlay the debit card's success into increased revenue for the banks.
Mr. Yanak and others attribute the phenomenal growth to the rapidly increasing number of debit-card-accepting terminals at points of sale.
"We've saturated the supermarkets and the gas stations," said Mr. Yanak, "and now we're starting to hit other high-volume transaction areas like fast food stores and discount retailers." NYCE estimates it handles 40,000 to 50,000 POS transactions per day, up from 30,000 this time last year.
The two national on-line debit networks, MasterCard's Maestro and Visa's Interlink, have made particularly large gains.
Last week, Maestro announced it had signed Urban Outfitters, which sells clothes, accessories, and housewares, and Rack Room Shoes, one of the largest shoe retailers in the Southeast.
Interlink has deals with Barnes & Noble, Foot Locker, Kinney Shoes, Midas Muffler, and others.
Visa's Ms. Somerville applauds the efforts to gain acceptance of debit cards at new merchants. She says debit-issuing banks should also target new consumers, those who do not yet use the cards.
For example, she says, senior citizens are often overlooked when banks plan debit card promotions, because they are not frequent ATM users.
But, she said, senior citizens are good candidates for debit cards for four easily marketable reasons: the cards are safer than cash, they are easier to use than a bulky checkbook, they help with budget management, and they are convenient for travel.
"The industry has not done a very good job explaining the debit card," agreed Mr. Yanak. "Many consumers don't understand that this service is available. We need to spend more of our promotion and advertising dollars on consumer education."
A part of that education, he added, must include honest communication about fees. Because the industry is not consistent in pricing - some banks charge an annual fee, some charge transaction fees, and a few don't charge any fees at all - consumers can get confused easily.
"I personally believe that consumers are very willing to pay a reasonable fee for the convenience attached to the service," said Mr. Yanak. "I think a reasonable fee would be 25 cents per transaction."
He cited one study, conducted by a major supermarket chain, in which 92% of customers said they would not mind paying an extra quarter for the service, especially since they perceived it as being quicker than paying with cash or a check.
Mr. Yanak suggested that even more consumers would use debit cards if there were a reward, like frequent flier miles or discounts for loyal shoppers.
"Supermarket retailers tell me they have a high incidence of credit card users who have no intention of rolling over balances," he said. "They're just using credit cards to get frequent flier miles.
"Meanwhile, the merchants are paying a premium."
The answer to this dilemma is cobranded debit, says Charles Raphael, first vice president and director of retail delivery systems for NBD Bancorp, Detroit.
There are key differences, however, in choosing a partner for any cobranding ventures, he said. Credit card issuers often can deliver a national base to prospective cobranding partners, he said, while a debit card customer base is more regional in scope.
"That means automatically that we're talking about different organizations" for cobranding partners, he said. "For example, an airline is just not going to be interested in cobranding a debit card in a three- state region. At least, it's unlikely.
"The regional bell operating companies, grocery store chains, and convenience stores are much more likely cobranding partners."