Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket chain, has expanded its already active point-of-sale payment program into four stores in Virginia.

As the result of an agreement with Internet Inc., operator of the Most regional electronic banking network, customers of Kroger outlets in Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Staunton, and Harrisonburg will be able to make purchases using Most cards.

Most which is based in Reston, Va., is the nation's fifth-largest automated teller machine network.

Kroger is one of a growing number of U.S. supermarket chains that are accepting noncash payments for purchases.

Supermarkets, along with gas stations, have most eagerly embraced the idea of direct debiting - the process by which payments at the point of sale are electronically withdrawn from a customer's bank account.

As more consumers are exposed to direct debiting at these types of locations, electronic banking executives believe they will soon be able expand the programs into department stores.

"As the list of point-of-sale merchants continues to grow, consumer interest is causing other retailers to begin accepting Most cards for purchases," said Richard G. Lyons Jr., chief operating officer at Internet.

Retailers Interest Said to Grow

In the last year, experts say, retailer interest in debit cards has grown as MasterCard and Visa unveiled their national debit programs, Maestro and Interlink, respectively.

Riding or fueling that wave, regional networks like NYCE and MAC in the Northeast are reporting unprecedented retailer and consumer participation in their point-of-sale services. Most is experiencing much the same sort of growth.

About 70 retailers, with more than 3,000 point-of-sale terminals - including 44 at the four Virginia Kroger stores - currently accept Most cards, which also can be used in more than 4,000 automated teller machines in the East and Southeast.

Cincinnati-based Kroger, which had $21 billion in sales last year, is a leader among supermarkets in financial services and electronic payments.

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