The sixteenth annual POS Today conference attracted fewer than 300, about 10 of whom were representing merchants. Of the 40 or so bankers in attendance, only two were from banks that issue cards.
Conference chairman Stephen S. Cole of Cash Station Inc. lamented those low numbers during a session on pricing strategies, pointing out that issuers and merchants are two key groups in setting point of sale and pos systems pricing.
“The more plastics you carry in your wallet, the happier you are,” he said.
Exhibitors also expressed disappointment at the low turnout, a 25% drop from last year.
Nearly all the exhibitors complained that they were spending more time talking to each other than to potential clients.
One vendor suggested that POS Today is completely indistinguishable from another Faulkner & Gray conference, Debit Card Forum. He suggested that the two conferences merge, “to eliminate the redundancies, you know, just like the banks are doing.”
Rumors about a merger between BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. hit their peak on Monday, and comprised a good bit of the coffee break chatter at the conference. Independent sales organizations were salivating over the prospect of a coast-to-coast merchant territory such a deal would offer.
People in the point of sale debit industry seem positively eager to tap into the public sector.
Mary Kilby, vice president and director of marketing for Internet/Most, endorsed the idea, citing the concept of “government as retailer.”
She explained that if point of sale debit could be used for payments, “if I’m the county recreation department, I can compete with the local YMCA.”
Francis X. O’Leary, treasurer for Arlington County in Virginia, suggested debit cards could be considered for future use in meeting “mandatory” bills, which include taxes and parking tickets, and “discretionary” bills covering matters such as day care and recreation.
Can point of sale debit be effectively sold on television? It depends on where you live.
“Many consumers are still slow on the learning curve … even the word ‘debit’ causes some consumers confusion and concern,” said Debra Lipp, point of sale product manager for the Magic Line network, who advocated the use of television advertising.
But Cindy Ballard, senior vice president for Pulse network, said television advertising would be impractical for her company due to the regional nature of such coverage. Some of the seven states in which Pulse operates – Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Mississippi – are among the nation’s largest.
“In a market as big as Texas, it would be too costly to utilize TV effectively, and to have an ongoing, effective ad campaign,” said Ms. Ballard.
“Using television advertising across Texas would be impractical, whereas localizing it in Chicago or Detroit would work,” she said.
For many, the question is whether there’s a place for both credit and debit. But perhaps the real question is whether both on- line and off-line debit can exist.
Donald Maurer, senior vice president of Gensar Technologies, commented that “debit doesn’t eat credit, but are on-line and off- line debit competitive? I feel that if on-line debit doesn’t react, it may slowly disappear.
“On-line debit will become, not a thing of the past, but it will have” limited uses, he concluded.
The last session of the conference – “Adding Zest to a Mature POS Market,” by MAC network director Philip Valvardi – drew a respectable crowd, about 100 people. Mr. Valvardi immediately undercut his assigned theme by telling the audience that there is no such thing as a mature point of sale market today.
“If debit were mature, people would feel confident leaving their cash and checks at home, and I don’t think that’s true,” he said.
Speaker after speaker made it clear that annual growth rates of even 10% are not good enough. The underlying theme of every scheduled presentation was finding ways to expand the debit business.
Bankers and processors said the on-line debit could go further if store cashiers would remind consumers of that payment option. William Gerstein, owner of Mr. G’s Finer Foods, gave a half-hour talk on how Mr. G’s cashiers have become very effective salespeople for debit, mostly because of generous incentive programs for the cashiers.
Other merchants were less sanguine about their chances for success.
“Honestly, we’re still trying to get our cashiers to smile and say hello to the customers,” said a representative from Target Stores Inc.
In a break with tradition, the conference organizers added several smart card and electronic commerce sessions to this year’s program. Response from attendees was less than enthusiastic; these sessions were among the least well-attended.
Even those who attended these sessions were unconvinced that either smart cards or electronic commerce would have any impact on the day-to-day business of retail banking anytime soon.
When presenters started having problems with the audio-visual equipment, one audience member turned to a colleague, saying, “I don’t think the average Joe is going to be into this information highway stuff. Look at all these experts who can’t get their things going. Consumers don’t like to change. That’s what I think.”