Making a bold play for customers in the hotly contested remote banking field, Citibank has eliminated fees on the majority of its electronic banking services.
Beginning in June, Citibank customers, regardless of their account balances, will no longer have to pay monthly or transaction-based fees for banking through automated teller machines, personal computers, or screen phones.
A spokeswoman said the nation's largest bank will lose just under $10 million in annual revenues as a result of the fee eliminations. "But we feel we can make that up by getting customers to do more with us and by attracting new customers," she said.
With the move, observers said, Citibank is reclaiming the electronic banking leadership role it played in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By scrapping charges in one fell swoop, the bank is bucking a trend toward ratcheting up remote-banking fees - especially those for ATM and point-of-sale transactions. Its move is expected to have a ripple effect on pricing in the New York market, and perhaps beyond.
Two of Citibank's closest competitors, Chase Manhattan Corp. and Chemical Banking Corp., declined to comment on the action.
Citibank has already been more successful than most at getting customers to use low-cost electronic delivery channels.
Roughly 80% of the bank's retail transactions are conducted with electronic delivery mechanisms, according to Citibank executives. This compares to an industry average of 55%, according to Liam Carmody, a principal with Carmody & Bloom, a consulting firm in Ridgewood, N.J.
The move should encourage more customers to move away from teller- assisted transactions, which are among the most costly in retail banking, Mr. Carmody said. "It's part of the basic philosophy of switching customers away from where costs are."
Still, Citibank officials took pains to say they are not turning their backs on customers who want to deal with tellers.
"We will not be considering increased fees" at the teller line, said Noreen Dalpiaz, a vice president at Citibank. First Chicago Corp. ran into a firestorm of criticism last month when it began charging some customers fees for using tellers.
Ms. Dalpiaz said that in addition to increasing market share, free electronic services will help to reduce branch costs: "Obviously, when you handle these transactions in an electronic way, it's a cost-effective method."
But she declined to be specific about teller staff reductions. She acknowledged that the new fee schedule may allow Citibank to expand a program already under way in which tellers handle a wider array of transactions.
The new pricing scheme is comprehensive.
Transactions conducted by customers at Citicorp-owned automated teller machines will now be entirely free. In the past, such transactions carried a 35-cent fee for customers with less than $2,000 in their checking accounts or less than $6,000 in combined deposits. The $1 fee that some Citibank customers pay to use other banks' ATMs will remain in place.
PC-based banking and bill payment services, which had carried 35-cent transaction fees and monthly charges of $9.95 and $3.50 respectively, will also be free.
In a bid to attract corporate customers, the bank also dropped the $55 monthly fee from its PC-based service for small businesses.
Retail point of sale transactions and touch-tone phone services will continue to be free.
Not everyone believes the fee eliminations are a smart move.
Richard Robida, an electronic banking consultant with Atlanta-based Speer & Associates, said that if the bank acquires customers at the low end of the deposit spectrum and earns the normal spread of 2% on its deposits, it will be hard pressed to offset the cost of even electronic transactions that such customers will generate.