BankAmerica Corp. intends to close 30 branches in California in the coming months, while opening as many as 50 supermarket branches.
Such a move may sound familiar to its rival across the street, Wells Fargo & Co., which has bet much of its retail future on the same strategy.
BankAmerica's supermarket banking campaign "hasn't had the big public profile that Wells' has had, but they've got one, too," said Raphael Soifer, a banking analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
The closings, to be completed by March, involve about 2% of BankAmerica's traditional branches in California. Russ Yarrow, a bank spokesman, could not say how much the bank expects to save. Employee layoffs should be "minimal," he said.
The bank expects to have as many as 400 branches in Lucky Stores in the coming months, up from 370 today. In all, the bank, which operates in 11 states, has 750 supermarket branches, about 27% of its distribution network, Mr. Yarrow said.
BankAmerica officials stressed, however, that they're not copying Wells' ambitious strategy of replacing traditional branches with in-store branches in order to save on costs.
"Is there life for the traditional branch? Absolutely," said Mr. Yarrow. "What we want to do is provide a really dynamic platform to give customers the choice to bank how they want, where they want, and when they want."
Added Barbara Desoer, executive vice president in charge of BankAmerica's California retail bank, "In addition to adding more branches in Lucky Stores, we're continuing to enhance our ATM, telephone banking, and on-line PC banking services."
A host of large and small banks around the country - such as KeyCorp, NationsBank Corp., and U.S. Bancorp - have embraced supermarket branching in recent years, but none to the degree that Wells has. Nor have any scrapped their traditional branches in favor of the in-store outlets, as Wells has.
"The mind-set of most of them is run the supermarket branches parallel to their other branches and see how they work - and then maybe consider closing the traditional ones down," said Anthony Lombardi, an analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds.
Earlier this year, Wells said that by yearend it would have closed about half of the 615 traditional branches it had in California in 1994. About a third of its branch network is in supermarkets.
Analysts said that though they don't believe BankAmerica is trying to mirror Wells' aggressive approach, Wells Fargo's steps have encouraged other banks to take smaller steps in the same direction.
"Wells has conditioned California customers to banking this way," said Mr. Soifer. "That makes it easier for BofA or whoever else to come in and do the same thing."
In the Midwest, BankAmerica is already operating its retail network solely out of supermarkets. The bank has 172 branches in Jewel/Osco stores in the region, which it entered in 1994 with the acquisition of Continental Bank.