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Card issuers reluctant to leapfrog merchants on EMV migration

Banks hesitate to put chip cards in customers' hands if retailers haven't upgraded their terminals to process them.

EMV migration efforts in the U.S. are well underway, but gaps in market readiness could lead banks to scale back the pace of implementation, Auriemma Consulting Group says.

Fewer than 1 in 10 credit cards in circulation were EMV-equipped as of mid-January, according to a survey of 20 issuers conducted by the firm, a press release said. While this number is expected to increase sharply throughout 2015  —  issuers are targeting 50 to 60 percent penetration by October  —  projections are tied to large-scale advances in merchant acceptance that have yet to materialize.

"While the focus has clearly shifted to implementation and many banks have begun issuing EMV cards to new accounts, the pace of full portfolio conversion will be guided by the merchant rollout," said Anita Solaman, industry roundtables director at ACG. "Banks are hesitant to put chip cards in customers' hands if retailers haven't upgraded their terminals to process them."

Patchy terminal support will also delay the learning curve for consumers, Solaman said.

"Slow merchant adoption introduces questions about cardholder communications, education initiatives, and general product awareness. Gaps in acceptance could confuse cardholders and weaken their perceptions of chip card security."

Some issuers have contingency plans to accelerate mass reissuance of remaining cards in the event of more substantial shifts, Solaman said. And despite concerns over the pace of the conversion to EMV, she said the credit card industry has made major advances in short order.

"As recently as a year ago, many banks were still assessing the business case for chip cards, particularly because the technology only addresses physical transaction security," Solaman said. "While the migration to chip cards may be gradual, it is now a question of when — rather than if."