In its continuing effort to broaden debit acceptance at the point of sale, Maestro U.S.A. has zeroed in on its next nontraditional merchant target: specialty retailers.

Maestro wants to drive on-line POS acceptance beyond traditional food and fuel categories, and has enlisted key players to move into the apparel/specialty retail category.

"This is not just a hyped-up volume [promotion]," said Carl Stefanelli, vice president of acceptance for Maestro. "We want to demonstrate to these merchants that debit card activity can be sustained and that it's a good idea."

The MasterCard subsidiary will begin a six-month pilot acceptance program for on-line debit at Factory Stores of America at Nut Tree Outlet Center in Vacaville, Calif.

Calling the program the first of its kind, Maestro has partnered with Verifone Inc., the Redwood City, Calif., supplier of POS terminals, to help launch the program, along with a number of acquirers, merchants, processors, and equipment suppliers.

Verifone will supply terminals and the devices to enter personal identification numbers that merchants need for on-line acceptance. Maestro and Verifone have made the terminals available to merchants free for six months.

During the pilot Maestro will absorb most of the processing fees that merchants are required to pay to acquirers per transaction.

Star System Inc., the San Diego company that runs the Explore automated teller machine network, will play an integral role in the test. Others involved include Bank of America, Continental Pacific Bank, Mellon Bank, Northern Trust Co., Card Establishment Services, and Nabanco.

So far, 20 retailers, including Reebok, Bugle Boy, Van Heusen, and Kids Mart in the factory outlet have added acceptance of cards branded with Maestro, Explore, and Visa's Interlink. There are 130 stores in the center.

After results from the promotion are tallied, Maestro plans to kick off similar campaigns in this segment across the country within a year, as it has done with regional promotions.

"The real story will be in six months when we gather the results and see how effectively we can move to other segments," Mr. Stefanelli said. "We've got to spread this business."

Maestro began the year with a consumer usage and awareness program in Boston designed to build acceptance at gas stations and supermarkets.

Like the Boston promotion, Maestro has built in consumer incentives to drive ATM card use at the factory outlet center. Consumers using Explore and Maestro cards at outlet merchants from late October through the end of the year are eligible for one of five $2,000 shopping sprees that will be awarded.

A variety of in-store posters, tent cards, displays, and sales clerk buttons will promote the sweepstakes. There will be television and print advertising to support the sweepstakes using the Maestro and Explore logos. Billboards along Interstate 80 will encourage travelers to shop at the center using their ATM cards.

At the same time, people who stop at the Nut Tree restaurant adjacent to the center can pay with their Explore and Maestro cards as well. And during a four-week fall celebration at the landmark eatery, when more than 200,000 will visit, Maestro will have a sponsorship booth to distribute consumer-oriented debit educational materials and to pitch the retail promotion.

Kay Draisin, property manager at the Factory Store of America Outlet Center, said the promotion will heighten the center's visibility and encourage people to visit at the busiest shopping time of the year.

To reward merchants and employees displaying signage and those who answer questions related to the promotion, "mystery shoppers" will go from store to store giving out instant cash awards.

"The pilot is an exceptional attempt at getting a new industry segment to participate that has been a little slower in accepting on-line POS than have been groceries," said Nikki Waters, senior vice president of marketing for Star System.

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