Visa U.S.A is pilot testing debit cards for small businesses and will begin promoting the product next year in a move to capture more of the market.

So far six card issuers have offered a Visa debit card targeted to small businesses with fewer than 100 employees and $10 million in annual sales. The Visa pilot began at the end of 1995 and will continue until the end of this year.

The cards, designed to be used for purchasing supplies and some travel expenses, are tied directly to the small businesses' checking accounts, said Craig Card, Visa business check card director.

"The check card would be used for buying paper clips that they would want to pay for right away, rather than paying for a copier they would carry on a credit card for a few months," Mr. Card said.

By deducting the money directly from the business' checking account, banks carry a much lower risk with debit cards than with conventional credit cards.

The debit card is not linked to a line of credit for overdraft protection. Mr. Card said Visa and the card issuers have not determined what the annual fee will be.

Mr. Card said the business debit card would help banks reduce their check-processing costs and reinforce relationships with customers who have business checking accounts.

"It's a relationship builder," Mr. Card said. "It helps them retain their existing customers by offering them another product."

Stanley Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates in Arvada, Colo., said the card would appeal to business owners with large checking account balances who prefer a combined monthly statement.

"It's part of Visa's long-term strategy to erode the strangle-hold American Express has on the small-business market," Mr. Anderson said.

American Express is testing stored-value cards for customers, but it cannot offer debit cards because it does not maintain any checking accounts.

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