A Bonus for Skipping the Tellers

Seattle's Seafirst Bank has launched a checking account that carries no fees for customers who use cash machines, rather than go to tellers, whenever possible.

The account, billed as a first for the Northwest, comes as banks across the country are seeking to encourage use of ATMs, which are far less costly than tellers.

Huge Cost Difference

A recent study by the American Bankers Association found that tellers cost banks 95 cents to $1.06 per transactions on banks' own ATMs.

The Seafirst account is "an easy way we can reward customers who prefer to use cash machines to help themselves," said Earl Schulman, vice chairman at Seafirst.

Customers who use a banker for a service that could have been performed through the bank's ATMs or automated phone service will be charged $1 for the assisted transaction.

Mixed Reception Expected

Seafirst, an ATM pioneer and a unit of Bank-America Corp., is aiming the product at college students, lower-income people, and busy individuals who are comfortable with machines, a spokeswoman said.

But consumers in their 50s or older, the bread-and-butter depositors at most banks, may balk at the product.

"Many of these people like a more personal approach to banking," said William Bowen, managing vice president at First Manhattan Consulting Group, New York. "They remember the day when going to the banks was important - it was a social thing as much as it was a financial thing."

That, he said, is the main hurdle the industry faces as it seeks to encourage greater use of automated services.

An Alternative Approach

Washington Mutual Savings Bank, Seattle, has recently been promoting a free checking account that "in some ways is the opposite" of the Seafirst product, said Deanna Oppenheimer, a senior vice president at the thrift.

The account is offered free of charge to customers who take other services from Washington Mutual, such as a certificate of deposit or an auto loan.

"We're trying to get customers into our branches and involved with our people," she said.

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