Not so long ago, gas stations were filled with people who pumped gas, and bank branches were filled with people who helped customers with transactions.
To the next generation of consumers, these concepts may appear humorously out of date. Self-service gasoline sales are already a given, and the idea of operating a branch without human intervention is gaining favor.
Several banks have opened what they refer to as "fully automated" branches in the last year or two. Some are assessing customer reaction before they invest more widely, but a few are steamrolling ahead.
So far, the conclusions bankers have drawn are that the technology for these branches works well but that customers might not be fully ready for it. While the gadgetry appeals to a techno-savvy segment of the market, most banks have opted to keep an employee or two on hand to explain how the branch operates.
Each bank that has introduced full automation has done so in its own signature way, but there are common characteristics. Most have souped-up automated teller machines with features like touch screens, bill payment, and the ability to cash checks to the dollar. They have video conferencing screens that enable customers to talk directly to off-site service representatives.
And while it may not sound like full automation, most of the branches do have a bank employee who helps befuddled customers navigate the high-tech machinery. Huntington Bancshares calls them "concierges."
"In some of the branches, some of the time, we will have a concierge, but not all the time," said William M. Randle, a senior vice president at Huntington. "In some cases, we've dramatically reduced the size of the facility - gone from 5,000 square feet to 2,500, and from a dozen people to one person."
Huntington has opened 15 fully automated branches - the bank calls them "Access" branches - since 1994. The first was a "stand-up" facility in an office building in downtown Columbus, Ohio, the bank's headquarters city. Customers had to stand to use the video-equipped terminals. Subsequent installations have included terminals where customers could sit, which Mr. Randle termed more "friendly."
"Going from a traditional branch with about a dozen people to a fully automated branch was a big step," Mr. Randle said. "It's not a question of equipment and technology - that's a small part of it - the real key is execution."
Huntington is encouraging customers to use a range of remote access channels, including the Internet and telephone. The "brave new branches" are a physical extension of those remote channels.
"We're trying to appeal to people who don't really come into the bank, who would prefer to use ATMs," Mr. Randle said. "It's a significant behavior modification process."
The cost savings to the bank? Mr. Randle estimated the operating cost for each Access branch as 50% to 70% lower than at a traditional branch.
Transaction volumes were low at the new branches at first. But after they had been open nine to 12 months, volumes reached parity with other branches, Mr. Randle said.
Customer acceptance has been good, with more affluent customers proving most adept at using the technology. The bank said the average age of customers who use the interactive video terminals is 38 (as opposed to 36 for ATMs) and that 20% of users report household incomes of more than $75,000.
"About 40% of customers say they much prefer this form of facility and basically use it exclusively," said David R. Owen, Huntington's retail group manager for central Ohio, "and 40% say they like it and will use it but will also use our traditional offices. Twenty percent don't like it and will only use the traditional offices."
Mr. Owen has 11 self-service branches within his domain, as well as 30 traditional ones. And there are certain transactions that the new ones can't handle.
"You can't get change for a dollar or quarters for the laundry, you can't redeem a savings bond, and you can't make a federal Treasury and tax payment and get a receipt," Mr. Owen said.
The branches can also accommodate some transactions that consumers don't seem to want.
"Customers are still reluctant to purchase certificates of deposit or investments through the channel," Mr. Owen said. "We have some strategies that I won't go into to improve that, but it's probably been our biggest hurdle."
The fully trained personal banker, or "concierge," who is on hand during business hours is not there to sell products, Mr. Owen said. That function is reserved for the traditional branches.
"They're going to introduce the individual to the technology," he said. "They're not there to replace it, just to introduce it. They don't have a desk that they sit at and wait for people to come to. They're mobile, they walk around and wear a signature garment."
The bank is pleased with the branches' performance and plans to "expand them in a very aggressive fashion" in 1997, Mr. Randle said.
Bank technology experts are divided over whether full automation is an admirable goal.
"We believe that it is important that there be some staff present at the branch even though all the routine transactions are handled through automation," said John W. Garnett, president of International Banking Technologies. The Norcross, Ga., company installs bank branches in supermarkets.
Mr. Garnett said video conferencing capability is an important feature of the technology he puts in supermarkets but the presence of salespeople is equally vital.
"It's just so much more efficient to be able to take out the tellers and have all your people as sellers," he said. "Your productivity goes up significantly if everybody is generating new business as opposed to just servicing existing business."
Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst and consultant at the Basex Group Inc. in New York City, disagreed.
"No one said that the selling has to go on in the same place you do your transactions," he said. "In fact, in some cases, it makes absolutely no sense at all because the people who do the selling are generally out visiting customers. The relationship person should be a road warrior."
Mr. Spira, whose firm does consulting work for financial institutions, is keen on fully automated branches and says that self- service saves time for customers.
"Bringing the satellite, unmanned branch as close to the customer as possible will result in far superior service and in a much better overall relationship," he said.
No bank has invested as heavily in fully automated branches as Huntington, but several others have opened one or two as experiments.
Citicorp has some ATM-only storefronts in New York City. BankAmerica has a fully automated branch in Warm Springs, Calif., and is gauging customer response. Washington Mutual Bank opened two fully automated branches in the Seattle area this year and will open a third in January.
"The hope for interactive video is that we can expand in markets that we normally couldn't cover geographically," said Michael Amato, senior vice president for consumer banking at Washington Mutual.
Both the bank's fully automated branches are in department stores, and each has two bankers who roam the aisles to prospect. The bank employees help explain the technology to customers and prospects but do not assist with transactions.
Business at the self-service branches was particularly brisk in the two months after they opened, said Ed Reger, vice president of alternative delivery systems development at Washington Mutual.
"There is a newness to the transaction activity there and to the interactive video that draws people in pretty actively in the beginning," he said, "then it levels off."
"People are currently opening new accounts fairly consistently," Mr. Reger said, "but it's at a level below what a staffed in-store branch is generating. We're hoping we can figure out a way to come closer to matching the new account openings of a staffed branch."
NCR Corp., Dayton, Ohio, created the branches for both Washington Mutual and Huntington. Rob Evans, director of self-service product marketing for NCR, said banks have been "thinking in those terms for a long time" but that technology constraints had shackled them until recently.
Banks that adopt self-service now "are going to have a real benefit," Mr. Evans predicted.
Crestar Bank has also created a variation on the automated branch - albeit partly by accident.
When a branch in Arlington, Va., was condemned by city fathers to widen an avenue, the bank reopened it across the street in a space too small for a traditional branch. Instead of teller stations, Crestar installed eight two-way video monitors and pneumatic tubes that connect the stalls to tellers - who are elsewhere in the building.
"One of the things customers like is trying to guess where the teller is," said Peter Nostrand, Crestar's regional president for Greater Washington.
"The experiment is to see whether customers mind interacting with a face on a television screen," he said. "You can imagine the implications if they do."
The unusual branch generates about 18 transactions an hour, versus about 25 at a traditional branch. But Mr. Nostrand said Crestar is interested in "going to the next level."
"We want to see what we can do to make this technology less dependent on the proximity of the teller and the presence of the pneumatic tube," he said. "That, to me, is the really exciting part."
Lenny Mendonca, a principal in the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Co., said quirky iterations on the branch prototype are likely to grow more common as banks figure out what works.
"I think what you're seeing right now is much like what's going on in retail more broadly," he said, "where you've got a wide array of format experiments going on.
"Some of them will stick, and some of them won't, but there's going to be a range of choices that consumers will try. It's going to be a pretty exciting time."