A month after acquiring the majority stake in an electronic paycheck firm, Goleta National Bank, Goleta, Calif., has signed up its first retail partner.

Lucky Stores Inc. has agreed to accept the bank's electronic paycheck cards at 224 of its Southern California grocery outlets beginning in early December.

The stored-valued cards are loaded with the amount of an employee's pay and are distributed by employers in place of paper paychecks. Under Goleta's agreement with Lucky, cardholders can collect the amount of cash stored on the card at any Lucky checkout counter-at no cost-or use the card to make purchases as they would with an ATM card.

"What we were looking for was to find the least costly way for holders of the cards to have access to their cash," said Randy Shaffer, executive vice president at $97 million-asset Goleta. Lucky is willing to accept the cards without charging a fee, he added, "because if you're a retailer, what more can you ask for than to have a customer come into your store with cash?"

Goleta entered the card-as-paycheck business in October when it acquired a 70% stake in Electronic Paycheck LLC. Electronic Paycheck, founded in 1996, develops systems that let companies pay employees with stored-value cards instead of paychecks. Cardholders can use the card anywhere that accepts debit-card payments. They can also get cash at automated teller machines with which Goleta is linked.

The bank made the acquisition in part to reach consumers who don't have bank accounts, of which there are an estimated one million in California. It makes its money by charging processing fees to employers that use the service, and by charging cardholders transaction fees for obtaining cash at ATMs.

At the moment, the company's only customer is a California farm owner that employs about 1,000 mostly migrant workers, most of whom don't have bank accounts. But Douglas King, Electronic Paycheck's founder, said he hopes the partnership with Lucky will encourage more employers to pay their workers with electronic paychecks.

Electronic Paycheck has been negotiating with Lucky and its parent company, American Stores Co. of Salt Lake City, for much of the year. With Lucky as a partner, cardholders can now get the full amount of their paychecks-down to the penny-something they could not do at ATMs.

"Lucky serves a broad base of Hispanic consumers, and we felt this was a good opportunity to meet customers' needs," said Lucky spokeswoman Judy Decker.

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