Visa Cash is getting good reviews from merchants in Atlanta.

"For a first shot at this we're real happy," said Randy Pirotin, who distributes franchises throughout Georgia for Blimpie, one of several fast- food outlets participating in the launch of the smart-card-based electronic cash system during the Olympic Games.

The retailers liked the way the system worked and said the cards generally reduced the time it takes to complete transactions.

"We're always looking for ways to shorten the length of time customers wait in line," said Jennifer Wittenabauer, a spokeswoman for General Cinemas. She also reported "the cards are becoming more popular," which bodes well for the post-Olympics continuation of the trial.

But some retailers and other observers of the high-profile smart card launch by Visa and three banks said the program's success will be limited unless consumers get more opportunities to use the cards - both in number of merchant locations and types of transactions.

NationsBank Corp., Wachovia Corp., and First Union Corp. marketed the cards as an alternative to cash in transactions of $10 or less. But many consumers around Atlanta were discouraged when they could not use the cards for $20 T-shirts and other souvenirs.

Bankers see those bigger-ticket transactions as better suited for credit cards, which are also more profitable to them. But that may cause users to question the meaning of "cash" in Visa Cash.

"Low-ticket transactions are a natural" for stored value cards, said William Adcock, chairman of Atlanta-based Synergistics Research Corp. "But a general merchandise application would make the cards much more attractive."

Such subtleties didn't concern low-ticket merchants like Mr. Pirotin, the Blimpie subfranchisor, who acknowledged it is too early to tell if Visa Cash boosted sales volume. "We like it" - but, since electronic money is the wave of the future, "we have no choice but to like it," he said.

David Farmer, marketing adviser at Chick-fil-A Inc., an Atlanta- based fast-food chain, said the banks did "a good job in getting awareness up on the card."

He said Visa Cash volume increased in downtown Atlanta locations during the Olympics, though "the usage is probably lower than they (the banks) wanted." Chick-fil-A is committed to "hang in there after the games," Mr. Farmer added.

Aside from the system features, retailers may have been especially pleased with some of the fringe benefits of Visa Cash.

Advertising for the product, splashed on billboards throughout Atlanta as well as on television and radio, were paid for by Visa and its bank partners and often include participating retailers' logos.

Mr. Farmer said the potential of extra traffic and the availability of another consumer payment option lured his company onto the system. Free terminals and free transaction charges were further enticements.

"Showing merchants the benefits of the system is crucial to success," said Benjamin Miller, a Rockville, Md., card technology consultant and chairman of the Cardtech/Securtech conference.

Still, the consumer will have the last word by choosing to use the cards or not, Mr. Miller pointed out.

If consumers want choice, and if cash is accepted everywhere, why not Visa Cash?

Kenneth Tromer, First Union's area director of sales for card products, said Visa Cash was designed in response to what was learned in focus-group interviews and European pilots, where newspapers, cups of coffee, and vending-machine merchandise are popular purchases with stored value cards.

The Olympics trial was the first opportunity to gauge mass-market consumer preferences in the United States. Though cash-oriented locations such as rapid transit, fast-food outlets, and gas stations are high on the banks' priority list, First Union will evaluate the results and decide "where they want to take it," said Mr. Tromer.

He added that reloadable cards, which First Union began issuing to its checking account customers in July, will offer more capabilities - such as couponing and loyalty programs - that could make them even more attractive to merchants.

Visa, which has 1,500 merchant locations in the Atlanta area, said the number will triple in the Olympics' aftermath. As the city returns to normal, it could become an even more reliable proving ground.

A dissenting voice on Visa Cash was that of Charles Boyd, treasurer of Mainstation Inc., which provides food services for office buildings. He pointed to "some inherent problems that don't make it all the wonderful things (Visa) said."

Mr. Boyd complained that customers confuse the chip cards with credit cards. Many don't know how much value is left on their cards and end up "splitting transactions" - paying part in cash or with multiple cards - which slows lines at the point of sale.

"Our business is built on speed," said the merchant, who was signed by Wachovia Bank. "Anything that holds up (the cashier) is not good for people on a 30-minute lunch break."

Mr. Boyd said Mainstation will continue with the pilot for the rest of the year, while the transactions are free of charge. "Any discount (fees) and I'd throw the machines out the window."

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