Sears, Roebuck and Co. appears to be getting ready to accept bank cards at all of its stores.

The giant retailer has reportedly picked a unit of First Financial Management Corp. to process Visa and MasterCard transactions.

The unit, National Bank Card Corp., or Nabanco, is the nation's largest merchant processor.

Donald Y. Sharp, a senior vice president of Atlanta-based First Financial, confirmed that a tentative agreement had been reached, but stressed that details remain to be worked out. "We have an agreement, not a contract," Mr. Sharp said.

Test in Progress

Sears has been testing acceptance of Visa and MasterCard since November at 140 general-purpose and speciality retail stores in California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Texas, but has not announced plans for a nationwide rollout.

Mr. Sharp declined to comment on whether the Nabanco agreement involved all 809 Sears stores. He said Sears will soon make an announcement about the acceptance of cards, but declined to elaborate.

Separately, a leading stock analyst, Patrick Burton of the Minneapolis investment firm Piper Jaffray Inc., said he had been told by knowledgeable officials that Sears was planning a national rollout.

Talk Called 'Speculation'

Perry Chlan, a Sears spokesman, declined to comment on the company's plans. He also said that talk of an agreement with Nabanco was "speculation" and declined to comment on it.

Most Sears stores accept only its own proprietary charge card and the Discover card, which it founded.

The acceptance of bank cards could boost sales. But it could also cut into Sears' profitable charge card business -- a bright spot in the company's troubled merchandise group.

Sears Card Used by 57%

Mr. Chlan said that in 1992, consumers made 57% of their purchases at Sears stores with the Sears charge card.

That year, the corporation lost $3.9 billion on revenues of $52.3 billion. But the charge card operation turned a $408 million profit, compared to a $175 million loss at Sears' U.S. stores.

In the first quarter of this year, Sears' U.S. stores lost $49.6 million, while the charge card made $119.8 million. Total profits for the company in the quarter were a record $435 million on sales of $11.3 billion.

The first public indication that Nabanco had won an agreement to settle Visa and MasterCard transactions for Sears came about a month ago, when executives at SPS Transaction Services Inc., Riverwoods, Ill., disclosed that the company had bid for the business, and lost to Nabanco.

Ranks High in Field

Nabanco is the country's largest merchant processor, measured by the volume of charges made by merchants contracting with the company, according to The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter in Oxnard, Calif.

The newsletter ranks SPS as the country's fifth-largest processor of so-called electronic draft capture bank card transactions made by merchants contracting with other merchant processors. Nabanco ranks seventh on this list.

Has Ties with Sears

SPS has been processing Visa and MasterCard transactions for the test that Sears started in November. SPS has subcontracted the settlement of transactions to National Processing Co. of Louisville, Ky., a unit of National City Corp.

SPS also has historical ties to Sears -- it is controlled by Dean Witter, Discover & Co., which Sears spun off earlier this year.

Jean Fargo, investor relations manager at SPS, said the company had bid to handle "full-line" processing, but declined to specify whether that would involve all Sears stores.

Mr. Burton of Piper Jaffray, however, said SPS officials told him the company had bid for a national contract.

Mr. Burton said SPS officials said they lost partly because the company does not have a bank through which to settle Visa and MasterCard transactions and resolve charge disputes.

This turned out be the only merchant processing business that Sears farmed out.

Ms. Fargo said Sears plans to do most of the computer processing of Visa and MasterCard transactions in-house, using telecommunication services from Advantis, a joint venture of Sears and International Business Machines Corp.

Nabanco had an edge over SPS because it can settle transactions through a bank controlled by First Financial, Mr. Burton said.

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