If 1994 was the "20th anniversary of debit being right around the corner" as one pundit joked last year, 1995 is the 21st.

That was the prevailing sentiment expressed by speakers and audience members at this week's POS Today conference in Dallas.

Although conference sponsor Faulkner & Gray optimistically named the two-day event "High Gear Marketing for a High Growth Market," most of the industry representatives collected in Dallas for the meeting said that point of sale debit has not yet broken through the many barriers that are holding it back.

Keynote speaker Roger Peirce, president and chief executive of First Data Corp.'s electronic funds services, portrayed the push for point of sale debit as a near-spiritual struggle that has yet to shift into high gear.

"Our journey will not end until we replace all cash and checks with some form of electronic equivalent and reach the 15% growth that's projected," he said.

Perhaps inspired by the proximity of Dealey Plaza, Mr. Peirce then reworked a famous Kennedy phrase in citing the "perception gap" affecting point of sale debit. "The term 'credit card industry' is no longer even applicable," he said.

Point of sale transactions that took an average of one minute in 1980 "can now be accomplished in a few seconds," Mr. Peirce noted. "The cost of processing cash and checks has not shown the same improvement."

He predicted a "greater integration of POS systems and services," adding that technology used for quick payment at gas stations could be used in movie theaters and in other service industries.

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The eighth annual POS Today conference attracted fewer than 300, about 10 of whom were representing merchants. Of the 40 or so bankers in attendance, only two were from banks that issue cards.

Conference chairman Stephen S. Cole of Cash Station Inc. lamented those low numbers during a session on pricing strategies, pointing out that issuers and merchants are two key groups in setting point of sale pricing.

While POS debit has its faults, "it's a whole lot better than other payment systems I've seen."

"The more plastics you carry in your wallet, the happier you are," he said.

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Exhibitors also expressed disappointment at the low turnout, a 25% drop from last year.

Nearly all the exhibitors complained that they were spending more time talking to each other than to potential clients.

One vendor suggested that POS Today is completely indistinguishable from another Faulkner & Gray conference, Debit Card Forum. He suggested that the two conferences merge, "to eliminate the redundancies, you know, just like the banks are doing."

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Rumors about a merger between BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. hit their peak on Monday, and comprised a good bit of the coffee break chatter at the conference. Independent sales organizations were salivating over the prospect of a coast-to-coast merchant territory such a deal would offer.

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People in the point of sale debit industry seem positively eager to tap into the public sector.

Mary Kilby, vice president and director of marketing for Internet/Most, endorsed the idea, citing the concept of "government as retailer."

She explained that if point of sale debit could be used for payments, "if I'm the county recreation department, I can compete with the local YMCA."

Francis X. O'Leary, treasurer for Arlington County in Virginia, suggested debit cards could be considered for future use in meeting "mandatory" bills, which include taxes and parking tickets, and "discretionary" bills covering matters such as day care and recreation.

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Can point of sale debit be effectively sold on television? It depends on where you live.

"Many consumers are still slow on the learning curve ... even the word 'debit' causes some consumers confusion and concern," said Debra Lipp, point of sale product manager for the Magic Line network, who advocated the use of television advertising.

But Cindy Ballard, senior vice president for Pulse network, said television advertising would be impractical for her company due to the regional nature of such coverage. Some of the seven states in which Pulse operates - Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Mississippi - are among the nation's largest.

"In a market as big as Texas, it would be too costly to utilize TV effectively, and to have an ongoing, effective ad campaign," said Ms. Ballard.

"Using television advertising across Texas would be impractical, whereas localizing it in Chicago or Detroit would work," she said.

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For many, the question is whether there's a place for both credit and debit. But perhaps the real question is whether both on-line and off-line debit can exist.

Donald Maurer, senior vice president of Gensar Technologies, commented that "debit doesn't eat credit, but are on-line and off-line debit competitive? I feel that if on-line debit doesn't react, it may slowly disappear.

"On-line debit will become, not a thing of the past, but it will have" limited uses, he concluded.

***

The last session of the conference - "Adding Zest to a Mature POS Market," by MAC network director Philip Valvardi - drew a respectable crowd, about 100 people. Mr. Valvardi immediately undercut his assigned theme by telling the audience that there is no such thing as a mature point of sale market today.

"If debit were mature, people would feel confident leaving their cash and checks at home, and I don't think that's true," he said.

Noting that MAC anticipates 30% to 50% growth in debit point of sale next year and double-digit growth rates into the next century, he questioned whether any mature business in the world could boast such rates.

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Speaker after speaker made it clear that annual growth rates of even 10% are not good enough. The underlying theme of every scheduled presentation was finding ways to expand the debit business.

Bankers and processors said the on-line debit could go further if store cashiers would remind consumers of that payment option. William Gerstein, owner of Mr. G's Finer Foods, gave a half-hour talk on how Mr. G's cashiers have become very effective salespeople for debit, mostly because of generous incentive programs for the cashiers.

Other merchants were less sanguine about their chances for success.

"Honestly, we're still trying to get our cashiers to smile and say hello to the customers," said a representative from Target Stores Inc.

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In a break with tradition, the conference organizers added several smart card and electronic commerce sessions to this year's program. Response from attendees was less than enthusiastic; these sessions were among the least well-attended.

Even those who attended these sessions were unconvinced that either smart cards or electronic commerce would have any impact on the day-to-day business of retail banking anytime soon.

When presenters started having problems with the audio-visual equipment, one audience member turned to a colleague, saying, "I don't think the average Joe is going to be into this information highway stuff. Look at all these experts who can't get their things going. Consumers don't like to change. That's what I think."

***

Hilary B. Thomas, president of ISED Corp., Morris Plains, N.J., asked bankers why so much of their energy and resources are spent developing PC- based solutions for electronic commerce. Ms. Thomas suggested a phone-based solution, and offered these statistics to bolster her argument:

*Men make up 80% of personal computer users.

*About 30 million U.S. households have PCs.

*A hundred million U.S. households have phones.

*Fifty-two percent of U.S. households have used phones to purchase goods.

*Women do the shopping in 99% of U.S. homes (Ms. Thomas noted that this is not an official statistic, but a hunch she believes is close to the truth.)

Ms. Thomas implored the audience to do the math, and then revealed her secret formula: Women plus phones equals point of sale at home.

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