Visa USA announced plans yesterday to change its membership rules to make it easier for companies other than banks, such as department stores, to issue Visa cards.
Although Visa, the leading general-purpose credit card company, has not announced the specific rules governing such companies, it said that next week it would end a 13-month moratorium on accepting new members owned by companies that are not banks.
The move by Visa makes it more competitive with Mastercard, which has been gaining market share because it has been more willing to allow non-banking companies to join its system.
"Visa has sent a signal to non-banks that it is moving in the direction of opening the doors," said David Robertson, vice president at the Nilson Report, a Los Angeles-based newsletter covering the credit-card industry. He noted that in the United States and overseas, the acceptance and growth of credit cards had convinced many companies that they wanted to join the system.
Among the dozens of companies that have issued nearly a billion private-brand credit cards, Mr. Robertson said, many were considering the general-purpose Visa and Mastercard cards.
Mr. Robertson said leading retailers such as Nordstrom, Dillard and the Limited already had bank charters that could allow them to issue general-purpose cards. General Motors Corp.'s plans to issue a general-purpose card are so advanced, he added, that the automaker has hired an advertising agency.
David Brancoli, a spokesman for Visa, declined comment on the number of applications pending or expected from non-banking companies. He said the moratorium was "part of our effort to evaluate the business and to preserve the value of our franchise and name for the banks who have invested billions of dollars."
Mastercard is the second-largest general-purpose credit card organization in the United States, with about 89 million cards issued, compared with 140 million for Visa. But Mastercard has gained share because it was willing to accept liaisons involving non-banks.
For example, Ameritech Inc., the Chicago-based regional Bell company, offers a combination telephone credit card and Mastercard, similar to AT&T's Universal Card, through Household Bank.