ST. LOUIS (FNS) -- A test using smart cards, in place of paper vouchers, to process transactions within the Women, Infants and Children benefits program earned passing marks from Wyoming retailers participating in the experiment, the first of its kind in the nation.
Results of a survey that highlighted problems and opportunities of the electronic benefits transfer test under way in Wyoming were presented here this month during a three-day WIC technology conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington.
"It has been a good first effort, but there is room for improvement," said Mac McDowell, partner in Jack & Jill Food Center, Wheatland, Wyo., and one of the test participants. Fifty-eight stores are involved in the test and 42 responded to the survey.
Retailers gave the eight-month smart card WIC test an overall rating of 3.4 based on a scale of 1 to 5, said McDowell, director of the Rocky Mountain Food Dealers Association, Denver. Transaction speed, data base management and system reliability were some of the areas that warranted improvement, according to the survey.
WIC recipients in seven Wyoming counties now present smart cards, not paper vouchers, at the checkout. The computer chip embedded in each card contains highly detailed information about the cardholder's
benefit redemption status, including which products they are entitled to purchase under the WIC program.
Card readers at the front end capture the data and process transactions in an off-line environment via an in-store processor and the recipients' cards are updated.
McDowell said retailers' experience with the smart card test was mixed in part because front-end equipment varied widely from store to store.
"Where a store has no scanner, it actually takes longer to process a WIC order than before," he said. "Where a store has a fully integrated smart card system, transaction time is 'dead even' with the previous paper-type system.
However, smart card technology was found to be considerably faster when processing multiple WIC vouchers, McDowell noted. Under the paper-based system, retailers spent six minutes processing three vouchers; under the smart card system, the same transaction took two minutes.
Data base management emerged as a key challenge for retailers participating in the smart card test, according to the survey. Test stores exchange data at night with host computers maintained by Stored Value Systems, a division of National City Processing, Louisville, Ky., and EBT contractor for the pilot.
"We have found that it is a daunting task to build and maintain the Uniform Product Code data base," McDowell said.
Store equipment for the pilot test was furnished through a state grant; however, the issue of who pays for equipment in an expanded test -- and other programs throughout the country -- remains unresolved.
Cost neutrality is a key issue for Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, said Steve Campbell, manager of electronic payment systems, who also spoke during the WIC conference. He called for realistic project timetables.
"You might thinks it's great to put in a project during March and complete it 10 months later, by the end of the year. To think that you can implement a program between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the supermarket industry is really setting yourself up for failure."
Campbell said a hybrid card -- containing both a magnetic stripe and smart card computer chip -- has potential for processing EBT, but has not garnered enough support.