The U.S. Postal Service, one of the country's largest retailers, is making a strong push for its customers to use plastic.
Its secret weapon: a sales force of 100,000 window clerks.
In 1999, two years after most of the Postal Service's 74,000 card acceptance terminals had been installed, postal officials said customers still did not know they could use credit and debit cards at the post office.
So last October the Postal Service began an unusual program in which clerks were instructed to suggest debit or credit card payments - even when customers were already reaching for cash or checks.
The power of suggestion was apparently worth about $35 million a month in card transactions. In January card sales totaled $210 million, the Postal Service said, up from $175 million a year earlier - even though total receipts fell, from $7.2 billion to $7 billion.
"Only four years ago we didn't accept credit and debit," said Deborah Hitzeroth, a treasury specialist for the Postal Service. The agency, which takes in roughly $91 billion annually, is like a "massive battleship" that makes huge waves even with "very tiny course corrections," she said. "When you're talking about 2% or 3% of $91 billion in annual cash flow, it has a profound impact on our organization."
Today, electronic payments - including payments processed through the Automated Clearing House and Federal Reserve systems - make up about 20% of total postal receipts. Postal officials are aiming to get the credit and debit share up from 3% to 14% - the industry average for retail, Ms. Hitzeroth said.
Card acceptance makes it easier for clerks to cash out at the end of the day, and it gets funds settled faster than cash or checks, she said. The Postal Service's size also brings it a good deal on interchange rates charged by the card companies.
The policy change must gladden the hearts of executives at Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International, who routinely refer to cash and checks as their top enemy. The Postal Service accepts all card brands, and does not steer consumers toward any particular brand.
The Postal Service's efforts reflect a broader attempt to make government payments paperless. The Internal Revenue Service lets people pay income taxes by credit cards, and public assistance funds and food stamps are often distributed on cards.
However, the Postal Service is an unusual federal agency in that it gets no funding from the government, and competes with the private sector.
"Even though we're a government-owned entity, we are in a very competitive marketplace," said Stephen Kearney, the Postal Service treasurer. "All of our competitors accept credit cards," he said, naming Mailboxes Etc., Federal Express, and the United Postal Service.
Postal officials have seen most of the growth in debit cards sales, perhaps because people are allowed to get up to $50 in cash over the transaction amount. Payments with debit cards rose 91% from January 1999 to $70 million in January 2000.
Credit card receipts, on the other hand, remained almost flat, growing only $1 million. Competitive pressure was the primary driver behind the card program, Mr. Kearney said.