ORLANDO, Fla. -- As any accountant knows, where there's a credit, there must be a debit.
But while most people know the power of a credit card, they are less familiar with the card's inseparable twin -- the debit card.
Debit cards, which work like checks, have been around for years. They have just recently begun to gain attention, however, as the nation's largest card issuers, Visa and MasterCard, have begun to align themselves with automated teller machine networks.
Use of old-style debit cards grew little in the past decade. Relying on the same carbon and charge-plate system used for credit-card charges, they proved too cumbersome for high-volume businesses such as grocery stores.
The development of automated teller machines created the technology needed to speed things up. Now customers can use their ATM cards as debit cards, and Visa and MasterCard are in a race to capture the market. The stakes are high. Visa estimates that more than half of the households in America use an ATM card at least once a month.
The excitement over the new card has rekindled interest in the old. Visa reports that its debit card customer base grew 19 percent in 1991.
In October, Visa purchased a California-based ATM-style debit card network. And last month, MasterCard announced a joint venture with several regional ATM networks, including Honor. The Interlink network caters to volume retailers such as grocery stores, which demand faster transactions than older, credit-card-style debit cards could provide.
MasterCard unveiled its ATM-style product, called Maestro, at a bank technology conference in Orlando on Dec. 9. Visa was at the same conference countering MasterCard's pitch with a hard sell for its own Interlink ATM-style debit card.
Experts view the latest round in the debit battle as more of an evolution than a revolution. Jimmy Froneberger, vice president of electronic banking at NCNB Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, said he thinks the card giants are just trying to broaden their client base beyond their existing credit card clients.
"I don't think you'll see the old cards go away," Mr. Froneberger said. "I think you'll see more on-line [ATM-style] cards, and eventually you may see the two products merge."
Either way it's a powerful piece of plastic. Identical in appearance to a credit card, both kinds of debit cards can be used in automated teller machines or as surrogates for checks.
In the case of Visa debit, that means access to 9.5 million locations worldwide, according to Debbe Stern, a Visa spokeswoman.
Grocers favor the ATM-style cards, which they say speed up the checkout lines. Customers just pass their ATM card through a card reader, punch in their personal identification number, and the groceries are paid for. The grocer is at no risk because the network checks to make sure there is enough money in the account to cover the purchase.
Publix Supermarkets of Lakeland, Fla., was one of the first
chains in the country to install card readers in all its stores, Mr. Froneberger said.
Jennifer Burns, a spokeswoman for Publix, said the chain began installing the readers in 1985 and completed the task earlier this year. The company has 389 stores. She estimated the average debit transaction at Publix takes 30 seconds, compared with 2.5 minutes for the typical purchase paid for by check.