- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

The electronic payment cards that buy gasoline at pumps and fares at Metro stations soon will be good for a variety of retail purchases.

In one example, McDonald's Corp. recently agreed to allow ExxonMobil Speedpass customers in Chicago to use their cards to pay for food at its restaurants. The company is negotiating with other retailers to allow purchases for groceries, video rentals and vending.

It's only a matter of time before ExxonMobil's Washington area customers are offered the same service, said ExxonMobil spokeswoman Jeanne Miller.

"I would say eventually," said Miss Miller, who works out of the company's Fairfax office. But she would not speculate on a date.

Metro, which lets customers use the electronic SmarTrip passes to pay for fares, has similar plans.

"Metro plans to explore the possibility for using the SmarTrip card during non-transit purchases," said Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson. "For example, purchasing gasoline, milk and bread from a convenience store."

She would not speculate on a date but said there was little doubt Metro would offer the service.

"The advantage for us is that we would be providing an enhanced customer-service product that makes it convenient for SmarTrip card users who lead very busy lives to have a multipurpose card at their fingertips," she said.

McDonald's is doing other tests with automated toll-collection technology that could eventually allow Maryland's M-TAG and Virginia's Smart Tag customers to charge hamburgers and milk shakes to their highway accounts.

M-TAG is an automated toll-collection system used at two tunnels and a bridge in the Baltimore Harbor area. Smart Tag is used on one bridge and five highways in Virginia, including the Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Greenway.

McDonald's is testing the service at five California restaurants. It plans to use New York's E-Z Pass automated toll-collection system for payment at two more restaurants in Long Island, N.Y., this summer.

"I can tell you we are very excited about the opportunities the cashless payment offers for our customers," said McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard. "It's fast, it's convenient and its great for our crews, too, because they don't have to deal with the cash."

M-TAG and Smart Tag use the kind of transponders adaptable to payment for retail purchases. "It's similar," Miss Howard said.

The opportunity has not been overlooked by local transportation officials.

"There have been preliminary discussions of possible uses of M-TAG for parking facilities," said Lori Vidil, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Other kinds of purchases might be made with M-TAG in the future, she said.

The technology allows customers to pay for purchases by simply passing a miniature plastic transponder near an electronic reader. A radio signal from the reader interacts with the transponder to identify customers and charge their accounts.

The recent success of McDonald's tests at nine Chicago restaurants prompted restaurant owners to vote to expand Speedpass use to more than 400 Chicago area restaurants by the fall.

"The expansion beyond service stations gives our nearly 5 million customers more avenues in which to use their Speedpass," said Mike Goldberg, president of Speedpass Network, a venture of ExxonMobil. "This is a natural evolution of an innovative system. Both customers and retailers will benefit as Speedpass is introduced into more retail establishments."

Speedpass also is being installed at nearly 2,800 Exxon service stations and convenience stores this year. Currently, it is used at 4,200 Mobil stations.

For customers, advantages of electronic payment include faster line movement inside stores and at drive-through locations, as well as the convenience of cashless payment at an expanding network of retailers. For retailers such as ExxonMobil, electronic payment offers the opportunity to track spending patterns of customers, thereby improving the range of special offers in their loyalty and reward programs.

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