Visa U.S.A., in an experiment that may allow the credit card giant to expand outside its traditional services, plans to offer debit cards for use in the home to make automatic bill payments.
Later this year, Visa will place card-reading terminals--used to initiate automatic payments--in the homes of a select list of customers from two big banks, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. Visa declined to name the banks, but said that both have already issued a substantial number of Visa debit cards.
Debit cards, most commonly used with automated teller machines, move money directly from a person's bank account when used. Unlike ubiquitous credit cards, debit cards do not allow customers to buy on credit or delay payment.
Visa has never conducted such an experiment with debit cards nor with its more than 100 million credit cards.
In the past, many banks and technology companies have tried promoting bill payments, along with banking and other information services, to users of home computers. The efforts have almost uniformly failed, however, due in large part to the expense of the home equipment involved. Visa plans to pay for the terminals used in the experiment.
Visa's move reflects an urgent desire to expand outside traditional credit card services, which are growing slowly in the United States and are said to be nearing saturation. There are more than 700 million credit cards nationwide--three times more than the number of debit cards.
But if the Visa project develops on a grand scale, it could provide a long-awaited boost to debit card sales volume. People would be able to use the cards not only to pay for goods and services from retailers, but also to help manage their finances by paying electric, telephone, credit card and other monthly bills instantly from their homes.
A Visa spokesman said the company does not have a starting date for the experiment and has not determined how long it will run the project or its geographical boundaries.
The project "would be a positive factor and give this business its overdue credibility," said Dale Reistad, director of electronic payment products at TV Answer Inc. of Reston, Va., who has long advocated electronic banking through low-cost home terminals.
But news of the experiment left some analysts cold. Financial consultant Sal Serrantino, president of California Research Corp. in Santa Monica, said he believed that the experiment would be a "tough sell."
He found fault with debit cards in general because they limit a consumer's options when making payments. "With debit cards you don't have float (the ability to defer payment)," he said, "and it's like a cash transaction in that you can't address problems in billing."
Visa said the terminals in homes will include keyboards and card-swipe mechanisms with bar-code readers. A customer would call up the bank through the keyboard, enter a personal identification number and swipe the debit card.
The bar-code reader--in conjunction with information keyboarded by the consumer--would then register the bill being paid and enter the amount of the payment. The bank would immediately debit the customer's checking account and send the funds electronically to the creditor's bank.