PHILADELPHIA -- Shopping for prepaid phone cards at mass-market retailers here can be a challenge despite efforts by suppliers to gain better visibility on the sales floor for their products.During March store visits, SN found most supermarkets tuck their prepaid cards behind service or video-rental counters, stuff them in registers or hide them away in showcases. Signs pointing them out are for the

PHILADELPHIA -- Shopping for prepaid phone cards at mass-market retailers here can be a challenge despite efforts by suppliers to gain better visibility on the sales floor for their products.

During March store visits, SN found most supermarkets tuck their prepaid cards behind service or video-rental counters, stuff them in registers or hide them away in showcases. Signs pointing them out are for the most part nonexistent.

While placing prepaid cards out of view of mainstream traffic may be a sound approach to cutting theft, it isn't a strategy for triggering impulse turns. However, Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets gets the message out with ceiling danglers that say phone cards are sold at customer-service counters.

Acme suspends its point-of-purchase materials above the service desk where video rentals and photoprocessing are handled. Most other food chains visited seemed to lack any POS displays or signs that call attention to the availability of prepaid cards.

Philadelphia-area stores visited also included Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J.; Super G units of Giant Food, Landover, Md.; the Super Fresh Food Markets Philadelphia division of A&P in Florence, N.J.; and ShopRite, the retailer-owned cooperative, Edison, N.J.

Other retailing formats compared were Wal-Mart on New Jersey Highway 70, Marlton, N.J.; Kmart, directly opposite on the same road; and drug chains CVS in the Marlton Crossings Shopping Center at Brick Road and New Jersey Highway 73, Marlton, N.J.; and the Rite Aid on New Jersey Route 70, Cherry Hill, N.J.

While prepaid phone-card suppliers usually furnish retailers with colorful and sometimes eye-popping POP window, door, ceiling and counter signs and posters, "some chains with a clean-store policy prefer not to clutter their front end with POP materials," said Mike Davis, national sales manager for Talk 'N Toss, Vancouver, Wash., A&P's prepaid card vendor.

Davis said that although food chains may launch corporate phone-card programs, store-level managers face inordinate amounts of POP from suppliers supplying grocery, produce and other categories.

"We have programs with Albertson's, Boise, Idaho; A&P; and Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C. When we lay out the program [for store-level POP merchandising], everyone agrees to do it, but when it reaches stores implementation doesn't always follow," asserted Davis.

Some retailers, he added, "pitch [out] starter POP and sign kits that we send them when they begin offering phone cards. These materials never get put up."

According to Davis, calling-card displays are sometimes affected by other product displays in food stores. "There are many displays that must go up, and then be taken down all the time. For example, chicken is 89 cents a pound and its [signs] have got to go up for three days. The turnover of POP in supermarkets is high."

Davis said due to the rapid turnover of promotion materials in the food channel, "standard permanent POP items tend to get pushed aside when these other displays are taken down."

He said lighted lane markers and signed permanent display areas near greeting cards or gifts can build a phone-card image for a chain.

Store-level associates at most chains that SN visited indicated phone cards, which are usually small enough to quickly slide into a wallet or purse, were maintained out of customer reach for security.

Yet theft didn't appear to deter area drug chains and mass merchants from displaying unactivated phone cards openly on checklane candy and gum racks and near cash registers, which triggers higher sales. These cards are activated by service clerks or cashiers at the time of purchase.

Wal-Mart and Kmart displayed their prepaid phone cards J-hooked on candy and gum racks, while drug chains Rite Aid and CVS merchandised them on small plastic counter racks and by cash registers.

The Voorhees Acme had live Call Time phone cards, which were supplied by Frontier Communications, Rochester, N.Y., until it sold the brand to SmarTalk TeleServices, Los Angeles.

The Acme unit merchandised the cards behind a glass customer-service counter shared with photoprocessing and video rentals, and at checkouts. The chain has offered prepaid phone cards for some time, and promotes them in weekly circulars at major holidays, said a store associate.

The 30-minute phone card is priced at $9.99 and is Acme's top seller, said the store associate, adding the chain also carries a 60-minute card for $18.99.

Phone cards at the Super G at Springdale and Evesham Roads, Cherry Hill, N.J., are dispensed from Catalina marketing point-of-sale terminals at checkout lanes.

"After a customer has paid for a phone card at the checkouts, the checker rings a bell to the service counter where a clerk brings over a small card with a UPC symbol for scanning, which triggers an actual live paper phone card," said a store-level associate.

"Deciding how to use POP display materials and signs is up to stores," said Tim Klapka, sales director at Catalina Marketing, Atlanta, whose checkstand POS terminals issue prepaid cards in Giant Food and its Super G locations.

Catalina has started rolling out more effective and easier-to-recognize store signing aids. Register candy-rack display signs, checkstand stickers and vinyl shelf talkers for gondola-edge rails were designed to raise consumer awareness of prepaid cards in the food channel, said Klapka.

In redesigning the store-level POP program, "we took into consideration chains with a clean-floor policy that tend to hesitate putting up a lot of POP materials. Cleaning up the clutter was one of the reasons we went to different [sign] sizes.

"We're also cleaning up the materials compared to our first POP, which was a rainbow [effect] with a lot of different colors," Klapka said. Catalina's new POP materials are now designed around a few primary colors, he added.

A 15-minute card retails for $5 at Super G, 30 minutes for $9 and 60 minutes for $17. The chain promotes phone cards in fliers and with $1 Catalina Marketing POS coupons, the associate said.

The Super Fresh in the Marlton Crossings Shopping Center had its reservoir of phone cards behind the service counter. The chain displayed small advertising brochures there that explained the calling times available and their cost.

These ad pieces detailed the chain's America's Choice private-label prepaid Talk 'N Toss 30-minute cards priced at $9.99; 90 minutes for $24.99 and 180 minutes, $46.99.

To make a purchase, customers carry a brochure for a 30-, 60- or 90-minute card to a checker who scans the Universal Product Code symbol. After the sale is rung up, the shopper takes a proof of purchase to the service desk for an activated phone card, a Super Fresh front-end clerk explained.

Philadelphia Pathmark Stores dispense $5, $10 and $20 Call Time calling cards from vending kiosks located at the front end after the checkouts. The vending units carry small signs posted on top that tell customers that higher-value cards are available at video rental.

Stashed behind the chest-high service counter there were live Intellicall 30-minute cards priced at $10; 100 minutes, $25; and 200 minutes, $50. A clerk said the higher-priced phone cards haven't sold well since the chain introduced them about six months ago.

She noted that most Pathmark customers prefer the vending machine for their phone cards.

The ShopRite in Marlton didn't carry prepaid phone cards. On entering the store, SN was told by a clerk that she didn't know if phone cards were even carried. "If so, they'd be sold at the service counter," she said. A service-counter clerk said the store has never carried prepaid phone cards.

Drug chains CVS and Rite Aid seemed to give their prepaid telephone cards higher visibility in sales areas than the food chains did.

The CVS store in the same shopping center as Super Fresh began carrying the first phone cards in early March, according to a store supervisor. The MCI prepaid phone cards were arranged on a small plastic stand on the counter next to cash registers at the front checkout area. Two rows of cards were priced at $9.99 for a 30-minute card and $18.99 for a 60-minute card.

Prepaid MCI cards at the Rite Aid on Route 70 West in Cherry Hill were J-hooked at cash registers. A 15-minute card was $4.95; a 30-minute card was $9.90; 60 minutes, $19.80; and 100 minutes, $27.90. The cards are activated after payment has been made.

Wal-Mart and Kmart integrated their phone cards into display racks along with novelties, film, batteries, gum and candy in front of and facing checkout lanes.

Prepaid LCI cards at the Kmart on New Jersey Highway 70 East in Marlton were J-hooked at checkouts on the candy and gum rack. A 40-minute card retailed for $10 and an 80-minute one sold for $20.

The Kmart used to offer phone cards from a locked glass showcase with cameras at the service counter in electronics, but moved them to the checkout area for better impulse sales, a store clerk said.

"We used to keep our phone cards in the glass case but they were out of sight. We moved them to the front of the store about six months ago where customers can now see them," he added. The cards are activated by checkout clerks at the time of purchase.

A Wal-Mart on the opposite side of the highway in Evesham Township had several MCI prepaid phone cards displayed on J-hooks near checkouts. Customers could also purchase phone cards at the service desk and have them activated there, a clerk said.

Store-brand Wal-Mart Happy Birthday, and Especially For You, card versions seemed to outsell other cards displayed at this store.

Phone cards overall at Wal-Mart were priced at $6.48 for a 20- minute card; 40 minutes, $9.94; 80 minutes, $19.84; and 120 minutes, $28.74. A 40-minute World Com Michael Jordan card was $9.94.