First Chicago Corp.'s controversial move to charge customers for using tellers has inspired a slew of copycats.
Despite the outcry last year when First Chicago announced its $3 per transaction levy, banks across the country have introduced new accounts with similar fees. The aim: to push customers toward telephones, automated teller machines, video kiosks, and home banking.
Examples are popping up everywhere:
*Banc One Corp. recently slapped a $2 teller per-transaction fee on its customers in Arizona and San Antonio, Tex., to test the idea for possible use in all its banks.
*First Bank System Inc. last month unveiled an account that waives a $3.50 monthly fee if customers don't use tellers.
*Comerica Inc. in April introduced an account to Michigan customers that completely prohibits the use of branches.
"This is a freight train," said James McCormick, president of First Manhattan Consulting Group. "Unless it gets derailed by regulators or legislators, it's not going to stop."
Big banks are committed to changing the nature of traditional branches from deposit-taking and withdrawal stations to offices that sell a variety of investment products to upper-income customers. At the same time, banks want their customers with lower balances to stop using branches for costly teller transactions.
Of course, consumer groups have found the trend toward teller fees downright maddening. Jordan Ash, banking organizer for Minnesota Acorn in St. Paul, said it looks as if banks will charge fees for anything they can. Telephone banking will likely be the next service for which customers will pay, he added.
"This is another example of making the consumers help the banks save money," Mr. Ash said.
Still, such institutions as TCF Financial Corp. - a $7 billion-asset thrift based in Minneapolis - make marketing hay out of the fact that they don't charge teller fees.
When First Bank introduced a checking account with a $3.50 monthly fee, TCF raised banners on its banks that read, "Totally Free Checking Forever."
"The idea of kicking people out is madness," said TCF Vice Chairman Robert Evans. "That's how we get our sales referrals."
First Bank, facing stiff competition from TCF and Norwest Corp., had offered free checking accounts until last month. But it found they weren't paying off.
"When we looked at free checking to determine if it was a profitable product, we found it was not an effective loss leader," said Richard Martino, vice president and manager of transaction products at First Bank.
Minneapolis-based First Bank is offering free checking to customers who use direct deposit for their paychecks. Mr. Martino said the account, which discourages teller use, is designed primarily for low- to moderate- income customers who don't buy other banking products.
Indeed, First Chicago said it was simply trying to corral its customers into banking through ATMs and telephones. In April it scaled back its fees on a couple of accounts, but it retains a $3 teller fee on its so-called "self service" account.
James Lancaster, executive vice president and head of Illinois retail at First Chicago NBD, said there had been much soul searching at his bank after it introduced the teller fee last year. "People here said, 'Did we do the right thing? The media is killing us and the competition is running funny ads.' "
"We are convinced now that we did the right thing," he added.
Observers say First Chicago's troubles were primarily a botched public relations campaign that had nothing to do with the account it offered. Indeed, First Chicago officials say its most popular account is the one that carries the $3 teller fee. That option represents 70% of all new accounts, Mr. Lancaster said.
Many companies have sponsored campaigns to sway people to bank outside branches. Cleveland-based KeyCorp pays up to a $1 a month to customers who deposit their checks in ATMs.
Other banks, such as Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio, have tried to discourage branch use by promoting ATMs, telephones, and video kiosks. Thirteen video kiosk locations substitute as branches in Ohio. "We're not going to tell customers what they can or cannot do," said William Randle, Huntington's director of marketing and strategic planning. "We're going to provide them with choices."
Teller fees are old hat on the West Coast. Wells Fargo & Co., which has been charging teller fees since the mid-1980s, recently dropped its $5-a- month teller fee on three accounts. A spokeswoman said customers rarely used a teller because it was understood the purpose of the accounts was to do banking outside branches. Now customers can occasionally use a teller, but if they use them too often, they may have their account type changed by the bank.
Mr. McCormick, the consultant, said someday banks will have to assess how much it costs to give customers unlimited ATM and telephone transactions.
First Chicago's Mr. Lancaster said telephone banking, currently free to customers, may be a candidate for fees. "I can't look far enough in the future to tell if some day we'll charge across the board," he said.