Two months after the Olympics, realism has settled in to evaluations of the Visa Cash card experiment.
Post mortems suggest the smart card test was instructive but not definitive. The most conclusive statements from knowledgeable people sound more like hypotheses.
They also sound much more sober than those made in the heat of the Atlanta games, when Visa International found itself having to answer repeated, if anecdotal, reports of customer complaints.
People involved in the trial, which continues on a smaller scale now that the visiting hordes have left, say limited merchant acceptance was a real and legitimate reason for cardholder dissatisfaction. They see good news, however, in the fact that "consumers have high expectations and want to use the card for whatever they use cash for," said Richard Schaffner, senior vice president of Visa Cash issuer NationsBank Corp.
Research based on 555 consumer interviews, soon to be published by Brittain Associates of Atlanta and Business Dynamics of Nyack, N.Y., shows that 40% of Visa Cash customers would continue using the cards. "From a new products standpoint, a 40% repurchase rate is phenomenal," said Business Dynamics partner James Shanahan.
But questions persist about basic economics. Attention is turning to the New York City trial next year in which MasterCard, Visa, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Citicorp's flagship bank will join forces.
"A positive business case ... hasn't been demonstrated, though we think it will be," Mr. Schaffner said this week at the American Bankers Association's 25th annual bank card conference.
"We won't be out there telling everybody it's great and wonderful and everybody will have chip cards in two to three years," Mr. Schaffner said. "It always takes longer and costs more than you think - and longer than a lot of the press and the vendors are implying."
On top of statements from officials of First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp., which also participated in Atlanta, Mr. Schaffner's remarks indicated that bankers still have questions.
To be sure, chip card momentum is building. Visa and MasterCard are involved in several tests around the world, though the economics seem more favorable in countries that lack the United States' efficient communications infrastructure for card authorizations.
Mr. Schaffner said a simple stored-value function will not pay for a chip card infrastructure. "Other benefits will be needed," he said.
While Verifone Inc., the leading provider of point of sale card-reading equipment, is gearing up for a smart card future with "value-added" services like shopper-loyalty programs paying the freight, rival Hypercom Inc. is more cautious.
Hypercom is responding to chip-reader demand, but president Albert Irato said he still wonders about the economics, especially in the United States.
David K. Hunt, the soon-to-depart president of AT&T Universal Card Services, also raised the economic issue, despite his company's investment in the Mondex chip-based technology: "It can cost several hundred dollars to reconfigure a POS site, and $3 to $15 per smart card produced," versus less than $1 for a magnetic stripe card.
From Atlanta, the New York group learned that merchant acceptance and training "absolutely must be addressed," Citibank project manager Judith Darr told the ABA conference. But she has an inkling that the chip program "will generate revenue streams and expense savings" for banks and merchants.