Key Federal Savings Bank of Havre de Grace, Md., and Mobil Oil Corp. have introduced a stored-value card that offers an alternative to using cash, checks, and credit for purchasing gasoline and other services.
The Go card - the first of its kind in the gasoline industry - was unveiled this month in Dallas. The company said it will introduce the prepaid debit card in Detroit and other regions before an expected national rollout.
Customers can load up the stored-value card, which carries no fee, in denominations of $25, $50, and $100.
The Go card operates on magnetic stripe technology so that it can be swiped at point-of-sale terminals at the pump or be presented to station attendants for payment. An on-line connection deducts the amount of the purchase and updates the remaining balance available on the card.
"This sort of electronic prepayment, which is even faster than cash when used at the pump, is definitely the next major step in card marketing," said Brian R. Baker, Mobil's vice president for marketing."
Robert M. Bouza, president of Key Federal's credit card operations in Havre de Grace, indicated that Mobil's desire for new technology, tempered by cost considerations, led to existing technology rather than a smart card.
"They wanted to be out on the market first," Mr. Bouza said, "but the economics of changing their pumps would involve a lot of money. They asked us if we could design a program that looks like smart cards but doesn't have same cost impact."
He added that there were some legal issues as to whether this would be a deposit or nondeposit card. "Rather than fight the issue, they came to us, and we made sure that their entities were protected."
"In effect," Mr. Bouza said, "we're giving the customers the benefits of a so-called smart card without requiring merchants to make an expense investment in new technology."
However, the Fairfax, Va.-based petroleum retailer expects that the Go card will win over many customers who now use cash. "This is an appeal to our cash customers," said Gail Campbell Woolley, a spokeswoman for Mobil, noting that about 50% of Mobil customers fall into this category. "That's why we chose to begin in heavy cash-use areas."
As an example, she cited marketing research indicating that Dallas' Hispanic community is "credit adverse" but "likes the prestige of prepaid cards."
Mobil said the new card will not affect its private-label gas card program, which has seven million cardholders. "They will complement each other," said Ms. Woolley. "The credit card is for our customers who prefer to use credit; the Go card is for those who use cash. It's all about offering more choices to customers."
Industry observers indicated that the Go card will do well in its targeted area.
"I think it's something that will spread very quickly," said Anne Morgan Moore, president Synergistics Research Corp., Atlanta. She saw it as useful to "people who don't want to carry cash and possibly don't qualify for credit cards and who don't like them. It will appeal to lower-income and younger consumers.
"Some people like to segment their spending," continued Ms. Moore. "They don't want to load everything on their credit cards."
Companies might find the card a convenient means of limiting employee spending. "I see it being used by companies that have employees who travel, rather then giving them a cash advance," said Ms. Moore.
Mr. Bouza said that the format used in the Mobil program could be adopted in other areas - and eliminate some traditional favorites, such as gift certificates.
"By coming up with a stored-cash value card based on the magnetic stripe system, we now have a new user-friendly payment card that lets merchants get more out of their current terminal installations," said Mr. Bouza. "Mobil's Go card is just the beginning of the applications we foresee."
As an example, he mentioned "taking this concept and replacing gift certificates in stores and fast-food chains, like McDonald's. Instead of sending a gift certificate as a gift, you'd send one of these cards."
Key Federal's relationship with Mobil is limited to processing. Mobil, which operates 8,600 gas stations in the United States, has made arrangements with credit card companies in the past. In January, American Express' small-business customers began receiving 3% discounts on Mobil gasoline purchases.
That agreement applies at participating Mobil stations nationwide, with the exception of New Jersey, which prohibits discounts on gasoline.