Customers Stop Going Inside as Banks Convert To Electronics

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE inside of a bank is becoming unfamiliar territory to many Americans.

In the last five years, the number of automated teller machines (ATMs) has grown from 72,000 to 87,000. In 1992, one-third of all banking transactions were completed outside of a bank. Now banks are racing to offer their customers even more electronic banking options.

Signet Banking Corporation in Richmond, Va., recently introduced TouchTone billing. Customers set up a list of ``merchants'' (utilities, landlords, even relatives) to be paid by automatic or occasional payments. Customers can access their list of merchants by touch-tone telephone and authorize payment by entering an identification number and account numbers. The service is accessible 24 hours a day and costs $6.95 per month for the first 15 merchants, a Signet spokeswoman says.

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``Customer relationships with banks are changing, especially with those 35 and under who are used to electronic banking,'' says John Hall of the American Bankers Association.

Bankers' hours have become increasingly more inconvenient for Americans, he says.

Even some investment transactions are beginning to be handled without the assistance of bank or investment company personnel. Last spring, Citicorp in New York gave customers access to their mutual funds through ATMs, enabling investors to check balances and transactions. Now customers can transfer money to buy or sell shares, says Citicorp spokeswoman Susan Weeks.

But investment possibilities through ATMs are still limited, says Richard Ross of Investment Marketing Corporation in Northfield, Ill. Though current regulations do not allow the initial sale of mutual funds without a prospectus, investors can buy or sell additional shares through ATMs after the first purchase.

Expanding ATM options and instituting other self-service devices are a way to beat the competition, says Henry McLain of NCR in Dayton, Ohio, a manufacturer of ATMs. Machines now offer postage stamps and subway tokens, and may soon offer theater tickets.

Some banks are linking branch customers to banking personnel elsewhere through telephone lines, eliminating the need for on-site representatives, Mr. McLain says. In the future, ATMs will provide video screens for customers who want visual contact.

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