First Union Corp. said it will launch a systemwide reorganization of its retail banking system to turn 2,000 traditional branches into high-tech financial centers where customers can help themselves.
Banks nationwide are transforming branch offices, from NationsBank Corp. in First Union's hometown of Charlotte, N.C., to Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco. But analysts said they see First Union emerging as one of the trend's leaders.
"All the real cutting edge banks are doing this. But First Union is on the forefront," said Anthony R. Davis, an analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc.
First Union plans to spend $60 million this year to lay the foundation for the new retail banking system, which is to start in May with the conversion of 66 branches in Atlanta. The "future bank implementation" project will be rolled out in all First Union branches during the next two years.
First Union said it has two goals for the project: to increase sales and to boost market share through improved customer retention.
"We are rebuilding our retail bank," said David M. Carroll, chief executive officer of First Union Bank of Georgia. "This is a radical change for a lot of people."
Mr. Carroll said the conversion should be completed by the fall of 1999, but he would not reveal its total expected cost.
Though First Union's program has many components, it essentially puts more technology in branch lobbies and moves operational tasks to a remote customer call center.
"Our effort is to take nonsales tasks out of the sales center," Mr. Carroll said.
The streamlining is made possible, in part, by new check-cashing automated teller machines, computers, phones, and video conference kiosks being added in branch lobbies. Each branch will employ a customer relations manager who will show customers how to use the new machines.
The changes are expected to reduce by about 10% the 1,000 jobs provided by traditional branches in the Atlanta area. The 100 redundant workers will be moved to different jobs in the company, Mr. Carroll said. In addition, he said, the bank plans to halve its branch sales force of 320 full-time workers, and those who lose sales jobs will also be redeployed.
"It will make us more efficient," Mr. Carroll said. "We'll have fewer people with more time to engage in growth activities."
Nancy A. Bush, an analyst at Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co., said that despite the popularity of branch reconfiguration she and others remain skeptical about how well the changes would pay off-at least in the short term. The reliance on technology and remote banking features may turn off a lot of customers, Ms. Bush said.
"It's not clear that consumers really want that," she added. "You've got to begin to reconfigure for the generation yet to come, but we still have the generation that you have to deal with out there that aren't so comfortable with it."