Dollar Dry Dock offers a bank-o-mat of financial services

Banking `a la Bloomingdale's? Dollar Dry Dock Savings Bank has seen the future: banking as retailing and automation. And it's jumping in with both feet.

Dollar is the first bank in the country to embrace the financial supermarket concept with such abandon. Other banks are still testing the idea, but by year-end, the $4.4 billion thrift plans to convert all 23 branches in the New York City area into sales floors for everything from American Eagle gold coins to airline tickets.

``To be a traditional bank when the trend is toward financial services isn't worthwhile,'' says Robert Steele, chairman of the 150-year-old savings bank. ``There's very little role for that kind of thrift in the urban market of the future.''

Across from Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street, the lobby of Dollar's showcase branch sports a tasteful array of soft salmon, aquamarine, and light grays. Turner Associates is the design consultant and, not so coincidentally, works for Bloomingdale's.

The horizontal dance of an electronic ticker tape in the front window and a Quotron machine in the lobby advertise the presence of a discount brokerage service - Murphy Favre Inc. Brokers, hired from outside, dispense investment advice while selling stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Indeed, Dollar Dry Dock just introduced its own mutual fund, a distinction shared by only two other banks in the United States.

The lobby is graced by tall information kiosks pointing the way to other nontraditional bank products: travel services, foreign-currency exchange, gold coins (one of two banks in the city that sell the American Eagles), and life insurance (Dollar is the biggest seller of savings bank life insurance in the state).

Bank tellers are relegated to the back of the bank, hidden by a partition from the services in the lobby. ``We're set up like a supermarket; our bread-and-butter business is in the back,'' explains executive vice-president Bruce Long.

The Boston-based Fidelity Investments has used similar high-visibility storefront centers to market its family of mutual funds. Dollar's Steele admits to admiring Fidelity's approach, but adds, ``We've got an advantage over Fidelity - they don't do basic financial transactions.''

Bank consultant Helene Duffy of Duffy & Duffy calls Dollar Dry Dock's marketing ``refreshing.'' But she finds the technological innovations most impressive. ``The on-line [computer] aspects and automated support are important,'' Ms. Duffy says, because they speed customer service and create new marketing opportunities.

For example, the process for opening a checking account is faster and less error prone. Rather than painstakingly filling out several forms, a customer sits down with a bank clerk who types the relevant information into a computer terminal that is linked with a central data base.

Automatically, an order for new checks is placed with a printer, and the checks are mailed out the next day. And rather than waiting weeks for a card for the automatic teller machine, Dollar can hand out the ATM card when the customer opens the account. The computer checks and clears the code word that evening, so the customer can begin using the ATM the next day.

The ATMs are an International Business Machines model that accepts check deposits without a deposit envelope and will cash checks to the penny. Later this month, automation behind the teller window will let tellers call up a customer's signature (plus age, address, etc.) on a computer screen for immediate verification.

Computerization is crucial to the bank's telemarketing plans, too. ``If a customer phones in to ask about CD rates or home equity loan fees, we can press a button and up pop the fees,'' Mr. Long, the vice-president, boasts. ``Press another button, and a home equity application is mailed to the customer with a personalized letter.''

To match products with customer needs more effectively, Dollar plans to give its securities and life insurance brokers the ability to instantly call up a customer's financial profile on a computer screen.

Dollar Dry Dock's makeover has included an influx of top management from the financial services industry in the past three years. And there's an effort to ``build a sales ethic among bank employees and a sensitivity to merchandising in the way Bloomingdale's or Macy's does,'' says chairman Steele. The thrift's travel, securities, and insurance salesmen have ``incentive'' pay.

Critics wonder whether customers will be drawn to or turned off by the plethora of services offered by this so-called bank of the future. Experimental branches of this sort at other banks have met with mixed success. But few, if any, have had as wholehearted a front office commitment to the concept. ``Bankers across the country will be watching closely to see just how well Dollar Dry Dock does,'' Duffy says.

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