Vital Processing Services has started processing checks and public assistance cards.

The move makes its payments menu as wide as those of such competitors as Concord EFS of Memphis and First Data Corp. of Atlanta.

Vital, one of the few payment processors that do no direct selling to merchants, says it is important not to compete with its clients - the acquiring banks and independent sales agents that foster merchant relationships.

But that has not stopped the Tempe, Ariz., company from trying to think more like a merchant. Vital, a joint venture of Visa U.S.A. and Total System Services Inc., is now looking beyond the acquirers and "up the food chain" to serve merchants - and ultimately consumers - better, said Jonathan Palmer, president and chief executive officer.

"More than ever, our ambition is to be the sole-source provider for commerce-enabling services," Mr. Palmer said.

Through a reseller agreement with BankServ, an electronic funds transfer service in San Francisco, Vital is now offering branded check conversion - the ability to scan data off a check and then submit it electronically. Previously, Vital had been routing check transactions to other service providers, but did not have an integrated offering. Down the line, Vital says it will remarket check guarantee and verification services through other third parties.

Vital is so committed to the "one-stop" shop concept that is has ventured into the fragile economic world of electronic benefits transfer. By Oct. 1, 2002, all states must enact EBT, but many banks and processors have fled from money-losing programs. Vital said it had been waiting for more EBT standardization between states before entering the new industry.

Company executives say merchants connected to Vital will be able to unclutter their countertops. A single point-of-sale device will accept credit, debit, private-label, and EBT cards, and checks. Merchants will get one billing statement and have one phone number to call for customer support.

In a separate development, merger activity gave Vital a new partner in Golden Retriever Systems, a Chandler, Ariz., company that compiles data used in transaction reporting and rewards programs. Vital owns 51% of the company.

The new partner is Netcentives Inc., a San Francisco company that runs Internet loyalty networks including Lycos Rewards and BlueLoot, the program attached to American Express' Blue card.

This month Netcentives bought Universal Value Network, a Tempe company that owns the other 49% of Golden Retriever. Universal runs loyalty programs such as Delta SkyMiles Shopping.

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