Tellers will disappear on Saturdays from 52 Fleet Financial Group branches in suburban New York and New Jersey as part of a three-month pilot program to gauge how customers use branches.

The testing begins July 10 at selected Fleet branches in New Jersey, Long Island, and Rochester, N.Y. Boston-based Fleet, with $106 billion of assets, operates 412 branches in New York and 171 in New Jersey.

Fleet will counter the absence of tellers by doubling the mortgage and investment product sales staff at these branches and posting a greeter in each lobby to direct customers, a spokesman said. In many cases, this would mean an addition of two to three employees in each branch, the spokesman said.

"This is part of an overall strategy of trying to determine what customers want," said James Schepker, the spokesman.

Fleet, like many other banks, wants to significantly increase branch product sales. The addition of sales staff on weekend days, when customers have more leisure time to meet with them, should prove profitable, consultants said.

"It's a creative approach to the age-old question of how to get interested customers in front of the right salesperson," said Les Dinkin, a retail banking consultant at NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn. "This is especially true of small-business customers, who spend most of the time strapped to their desks during the week."

Many of Fleet's competitors in the New York area offer Saturday hours, including Chase Manhattan Corp., Citigroup, HSBC USA Inc., Bank of New York Corp., and Republic New York Corp. Like Fleet, most of the branches with Saturday hours are in residential areas.

"There are some branches with Saturday hours in suburbs and urban areas where it makes sense," said Ken Herz, a Chase spokesman.

These banks also said they use a combination of tellers and platform staff to serve customers on Saturdays.

Fleet selected the participating branches using data it collected over the last year that indicate probable customer acceptance.

From April 1998 to April of this year, Fleet measured a 15% decline in teller transactions at selected branches and a corresponding 15% rise in the use of electronic banking services. This suggests that a lack of teller services at certain branches would not upset customers, Mr. Schepker said.

Fleet frequently experiments with its branches to see how customers react, Mr. Schepker said. Three years ago, for example, the bank selected four branches to offer Sunday hours. The pilot was not successful. "There just wasn't demand for banking services on Sundays," Mr. Schepker said.

But Saturday is seen as a day when customers do have the time to seek in-depth financial counseling at a branch. Fleet may see more-positive results with this test, Mr. Schepker added.

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