The convention of the National Retail Federation is not on most bankers' travel circuit, but it is a big gathering place for bankers' technology.
This was as true as ever last week when some 15,000 general merchandise retailers met in New York for their 84th annual convention.
Two of the biggest banking names of all - MasterCard and Visa - shared the spotlight as "name sponsors" of the gathering.
Buypass Corp., Citicorp Retail Services, National City Card Services, and FBS (First Bank System) Merchant Services - all bank-owned service providers - were among the exhibitors, as were such nonbank transaction- processing competitors as Nabanco, National Data Corp., and Nova Information Systems.
For retailers, the focus is on making the sale, and that's what these and other exhibitors were there to help them to do.
Compared to banking technology conferences, where interactive home services have become a preoccupation if not yet an obsession, there wasn't much talk among the retailers. It was the topic of one general session, but the overriding attitude seemed to be: "When the technology is there and consumers are on-line, we will be, too."
And there wasn't a lot of agonizing about transaction security over public networks, which some see as a stumbling block to two-way banking and shopping systems. The retailers are perfectly content to let bankers and others worry about the hazards and work out the kinks.
What was hot, from a payment technology standpoint, was point of sale equipment that facilitates acceptance of transactions of all kinds. There is nothing new about retailers' demand for such equipment, but the low cost of terminals like the T7P from Hypercom Inc. or the check-and-card reader from First Financial Management Corp.'s Microbilt subsidiary makes the sale increasingly easy.
To the retailers, check acceptance is every bit as important to making the sale as card acceptance, and the product announcements at the show bore that out.
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MasterCard International Inc. has a deal with the National Retail Federation to sponsor consumer research that strikes one of the keynotes of the annual meeting.
Last year the topic was "Meet the New Competition," which indicated not only that television shopping channels, catalogs - and, ultimately, on-line services - pose a challenge to traditional retailing, but that consumers were increasingly turned off by the uneven product availability, poor service, and personal-security threats at stores and malls.
The title of this year's report, "The New Value Equation," conveniently echoes MasterCard's value-oriented advertising themes.
Yankelovich Partners Inc. surveyed about 1,000 consumers nationwide to test the hypothesis that value is the best way to lure back those for whom shopping has lost its allure.
Out of this effort, Yankelovich came up with the concept of "situational value" - the blend of expectations, prices, and circumstantial factors like quality, time, and stress that dictate a person's shopping choice.
"There are times when consumers are willing to make trade-offs between value as it relates to low prices and value as defined by the total shopping experience," said Watts Wacker, Yankelovich's "resident futurist."
The researchers came up with situational value descriptions of several types of outlets. Chain department stores like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and J.C. Penney were declared "the value winner," which "more than any other (channel) delivers on consumer expectations."
Among other store types, Mr. Wacker said mass merchandisers are associated with "families and fun;" consumers have high expectations for expertise at electronics stores; off-price and warehouse retailers are especially valued for their location; and furniture stores gain leverage with delivery capability.
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Visa U.S.A. and Visa International were also pushing cobranding at their booth in the exhibition hall, but their convention session was devoted to purchasing cards, which are designed for small purchases by company employees.
"Purchasing cards will serve as a boon to small-dollar transactions," said Steve Langhans, director of Visa purchasing. "Suppliers can expect to be paid in two days as opposed to two months."
Mr. Langhans noted that purchasing cards are intended primarily for transactions under $5,000, although some have been used in sales up to $50,000. Typical applications include repetitive purchases such as coffee service, courier charges, and copier repair, along with general expenses such as temporary help and trade show expenses.
"The benefits to buyers are clear and distinct," said Mr. Langhans. "They will realize significant cost savings, reduced cycle time, and consolidated reporting on purchases."
Purchasing cards are expected to enable substantial productivity gains in corporate purchasing departments, perhaps leading to streamlining and staff reductions. Based on response to the Visa product, Mr. Langhans said "purchasing departments are strongly behind this new technology."
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Visa's Merchant Bank Services unit announced it will support Scan, an extensive bad-check data base, through the Visanet global telecommunications system.
Scan - the Shared Check Authorization Network - is a product of Electronic Transaction Corp., a Deluxe Corp. subsidiary. Scan was launched 10 years ago as a utility for major retailers and Electronic Transaction Corp. is seeking new distribution channels. It is already the biggest check authorization system, having handled 1.5 billion payments last year.
In September, the merchant processing unit of First National Bank of Omaha began marketing Scan to smaller retailers. Merchant Bank Services is now the largest national transaction processor in the remarketing program, which aims to deliver an economical check authorization service to standard point of sale equipment.
"There is a natural fit between Scan and MBS," said Steven Berardo, vice president of the Visa unit.
Participating banks "can offer their merchants a cost-effective, easy to implement solution to the increasing problem of check losses," said Tim Birk, senior vice president at Electronic Transaction Corp. "The merchants' ability to access Scan on the same terminal that they use to authorize credit cards makes this service flexible - reducing training and implementation time and expense."
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The synergy of three First Financial Management Corp. subsidiaries was evident in a product announced by one of them, TeleCheck Services Inc. of Houston.
TeleCheck, a rival of Scan in check authorizations and the leader in check guarantees, introduced Accelera, a terminal system for handling any type of noncash payment at the point of sale. A check reader is integrated in what otherwise looks like a regular card-swipe device.
The device is manufactured by First Financial's Microbilt unit and is part of a "one-stop merchant solution" offered by Nabanco, the subsidiary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that is No. 1 in processing card payments for retail merchants.
"Through the combined strength of TeleCheck and Nabanco, merchants have a total payment solution that is fast, easy, and convenient," said John D. Chaney, president and chief executive officer of TeleCheck.
"The expanded capabilities of the new authorization terminal simplify check and credit card processing for the merchant while providing retailers with the most advanced check-processing and fraud-prevention capabilities available."
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Checkmate Electronics Inc. of Roswell, Ga., was also promoting a multiple-payment acceptance device. It introduced the CM 2010, a $300 to $400 device - to be available within six months - which can handle anything from debit and credit cards to checks to frequent-shopper programs.
The 2010 "gives our reseller partners an integrated solution for simplifying check and card acceptance, as well as differentiating their product offering," said Jerry P. Malec, president and chief executive officer of Checkmate.
The company, which designs and manufactures its equipment, has been successful in rolling out a reading device for the MICR line on checks, the CMR 400. Olivetti recently bought 1,850 of them for an overseas bank's teller terminal network, and K-mart, Eckerd Corp., and Winn-Dixie Stores have bought them in the thousands to aid in check verification.
Another product, the CM 2020 electronic signature tablet, is being marketed by International Business Machines Corp. as part of its worldwide Vendor Logo program.
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International Verifact Inc., a Canadian-owned manufacturer of point of sale equipment, announced its acquisition of Soricon Corp., which makes the CheckReader family of authorization devices.
International Verifact moved its U.S. base from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Soricon's facilities in Boulder, Colo. The president of the company, which had consolidated revenue of more than $30 million in 1993, is Neville Vere Nicoll.
The Soricon products will be sold under the International Verifact name, but the current series will retain the MR 2000 brand name. The companies' U.S. users include CVS, Ames Department Stores, Nordstrom, and Safeway.
International Verifact has historically been associated with "cashless society" developments and is a major supplier to the Interac point of sale debit network in Canada. With Soricon, it gains a stake in the continued use of checks.
International Verifact called it a "logical acquisition. Although the trend is toward increased use of debit and credit cards, industry reports predict that consumers will continue to use checks for many years to come."
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One glimpse into the interactive future came from eShop Inc. of San Mateo, Calif.
The company has actually been in business since 1991 and claims to be the first to develop interactive software for shopping via on-line computer and cable networks.
The news last week was that GE Capital Services, which owns the biggest company in the private label credit business, entered into a strategic alliance with eShop. It will result in a "significant equity investment" by GE Capital Retailer Financial Services, a seat on the eShop board for a GE Capital official, and future "joint business development activities."
The agreement is a significant endorsement for eShop, financially and technologically. The company has been staking out a position on the information highway through strategic relationships with Tower Records and AT&T PersonaLink Services, and last year its multimedia software became part of Intel Corp.'s CablePort system for interactive television.
"Our merchants are always looking for better ways to meet the needs of their customers," said Daniel Porter, president of GE Retailer Financial Services - North America. "We are convinced that eShop has developed an approach to electronic home shopping that effectively addresses the merchants' needs and interests.
"Electronic shopping is going to permanently change the way consumers shop, and retailers will have to adjust the way they currently do business."
Robert Jennings contributed to this article.