What's shaped like a hockey stick, is driven by bank and consumer acceptance, and means big cash for card issuers? The growth curve for debit cards in the U.S. market.

In 1995, Visa U.S.A. claimed 32 million Visa Check Card

holders, a number that surged to 54 million in 1997, issued by 4,700 financial institutions. Visa predicts that debit cards will account for 10 percent of all consumer transactions in 2001, compared to one percent in 1995. "In 1998, the significant factor that will affect growth is continuing deployment of the card to consumers on the part of the banks around the country," says Tony McEwen, evp of deposit and cash products at Visa U.S.A. "Plus there's evidence...of significant growth in usage by people who already have the card."

One of the factors enabling increased usage by existing customers is the number of merchants that are able to conduct debit transactions. A whole new market of debit-accepting merchants-like taxi cabs, newsstand vendors and fast-food restaurants-is on the horizon with advancements in wireless, handheld, point-of-sale terminals. "As the technology in the merchant environment continues to evolve, I think consumers will recognize that it's going to be very easy to use those small, personal devices," McEwen adds.

But the technology czars at Citibank have shunned debit and check cards, instead focusing on the advancement of credit and smart cards. Do they know something the others don't? "We have not found any strong demand from our customers for debit cards," said a Citibank spokesman. Because ATM cards are used as debit cards in some places, "we simply have not put our resources (behind) a debit card."

-sausner tfn.com

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