Bank of America Corp. is charging some customers to receive their monthly statement in the mail, the industry's most aggressive move yet to encourage paperless banking.
For now, the $8.95 monthly fee applies to just one type of account, and only in Georgia. But B of A plans to roll out the product in other markets soon as a replacement for its popular student checking account, which has no monthly fees when opened online.
With overdraft fees and interchange from debit cards under fire, financial companies are eager to find new sources of recurring revenue.
While some banks might be reluctant to impose a fee for such a basic service, observers say that Bank of America is setting an important precedent and that other financial companies are likely to follow its example.
"When you have banks like B of A … do something that's different, it's quite natural for the rest of the market to strongly consider and pursue that type of option," said Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst for the Boston market research firm Celent.
The statement fee is "definitely a big deal," Jegher said.
Though B of A would not be the first U.S. bank to nudge customers away from paper statements, it is the biggest to start charging a fee for them.
The Charlotte company's new eBanking account is offered online to Georgia residents. It is pitched as a self-service account, and the monthly $8.95 fee is waived for people who agree to receive their statements only online and who do not visit a teller for any transactions that can be handled by an automated teller machine or online, such as balance inquiries and deposits.
A person familiar with Bank of America's plans said this week that the company is planning to replace its CampusEdge student account with eBanking in other markets in the near future.
B of A spokeswoman Tara Burke said Wednesday that it is "testing a lot of products." She would not provide any details about the eBanking account.
Many banks encourage customers to shut off their monthly statements, though few have reported significant success.
Consumers often say they want the paper records to keep track of their finances and to document payments and other transactions, such as when checks clear.
Jegher said some banks have had better results with the carrot approach — rewarding consumers for turning off paper — than with Bank of America's stick.
Toronto-Dominion Bank, for example, provides some services, including check images, for free to its paperless customers in Canada, but charges a per-item viewing fee to those who receive mailed statements.
Two years ago, Frost National Bank in San Antonio began offering an account where paper statements were not an option. The Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc. unit said at the time that mailing statements cost it $5 to $7 per account, per year, and that its earlier attempts to encourage customers to go paperless — including cash enticements — did not have as much success as it had hoped.
American Express Co. dipped its toe in the water last year by eliminating paper statements for customers of its global commercial card business.
As a result, half those customers began paying bills online instead of by check.
In February, Alliance Data Systems Inc. began charging holders of its retail store credit cards $1 per paper statement, though it said it was hard to tell how this changed behavior, since many store card users already checked their balances and paid their bills in person.
And PNC Financial Services Group Inc.'s Virtual Wallet account does not offer paper statements at all, though the Pittsburgh banking company's account includes a variety of online features that don't always translate well to a printed statement.
Jegher said Bank of America's new account terms could indicate that the company is not satisfied with its efforts to persuade customers to shut off paper statements. "Clearly they have some room to grow," he said.
Cathy Graeber, the founder of the consulting and research firm Swimming Upstream, said that Bank of America is wise to pitch eBanking as a replacement for its student account for people who are already comfortable interacting online and might not have developed specific habits for managing their finances.
The eBanking account "is, from a business standpoint, a very smart way to train new customers," Graeber said.
Older customers might be less agreeable to such a shift, she said. "You're just asking people to change such an ingrained behavior."
Graeber compared Bank of America's statement fee to First National Bank of Chicago's decision in 1995 to charge customers for visiting a teller, another fundamental banking service.
Consumers were livid over the $3 teller fee, and First National dropped it from most accounts a year later.
However, Graeber said Bank of America might not get the same reception.
"They have more channels and they're giving customers the choice" to perform the same activity without a teller or without a paper statement to avoid the fee, she said.
"If you want to pay the $9 fee, come on in, but … [B of A is] giving you an alternative to save the $9."
Nicole Sturgill, the research director for delivery channels at TowerGroup, said, "we all complain about paper, but people are not comfortable enough that they are willing to turn off those bank statements."
Bank of America is easing into this new approach.
In only attaching a fee to statements for a new account type, the company could avoid the backlash it would face if it were to change the rules for existing accounts, Sturgill said.
She agreed that other banks are eager to move customers away from paper statements and will likely follow B of A's example, but said they are more apt to take their cue from PNC and not offer even the option of a paid statement.
Bank of America will likely get results, in no small part because it set its fee so high.
"For $3, you may not get people to turn it off," she said, but "$9 for a paper statement? It will make you think twice."