Among the millions of consumers feasting on the Internet and on-line computer services, electronic banking satisfies few appetites.
In the latest American Banker/Gallup consumer survey, banking by personal computer was a mere blip on the on-line horizon.
Between the 1995 and 1996 polls, the proportion of financial consumers - people with at least one type of deposit or loan account - who had done banking by PC was unchanged, at 3%.
That figure equals 6% of PC owners, which was actually down a statistically insignificant 1 percentage point.
Over the same period, the percentage of PC owners in the survey who subscribed to networks like America Online and Prodigy rose to 36% from 23%, and those who had used the Internet for any purpose jumped to 59% from 35%.
Meanwhile, households reporting they owned a personal computer increased by 4 points, to 48%. Three-fourths of those are modem-equipped, a big jump from 59% a year before. Yet the proportion of PC owners very or somewhat interested in on-line banking was flat, at 52%.
Given the fact that households without bank accounts are excluded from the Gallup Organization's survey sample of 1,031, who were interviewed by telephone in September and early October, most of the results are in line with those of other research organizations. For example, Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., and Jupiter Communications of New York say PC banking is currently used in about 2% of all U.S. households.
Forrester and SRI Consulting, among others, have projected growth to no more than 10% in four to five years. That would be equal to perhaps 12% or 13% of the "banked" population covered in the Ameican Banker surveys.
"Our projections show that home banking would get to the million-and-a- half range (out of about 100 million households) in the 1996-1997 time frame," said Bobby Mehta, vice president and co-leader of the financial services practice at Boston Consulting Group.
But with electronic banking's popularity skyrocketing in some parts of the country, some bankers are scoffing at these research snapshots.
"This doesn't mesh with what I know," said S. Michael Woodward, a vice president in strategic marketing at Crestar Bank, Richmond.
"We were one of the 20-odd banks that began offering PC banking through Quicken and Money at about this time last year, and before that there weren't too many banks out there in a big way with PC banking.
"Now there are about 40. All of us hit this in a big way" in 1996.
"It just doesn't compute for me," Robert P. Shay Jr., director of self- service banking for Bank of Boston Corp., said of the consumer survey. One of the more successful PC-banking marketers, BankBoston now claims 186,000 on-line customers between the two banks that merged to form the company this year: 170,000 on BayBanks software, which was introduced in March, and 16,000 on Bank of Boston's software, which came out in October 1995.
Mr. Shay acknowledged that home banking may be suffering from PC owners' proclivity to try financial software and then stop using it, or try other brands. This has made it difficult to track customer loyalty to the leading financial management packages, Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Corp.'s Money, which are increasingly being tied in with home banking services.
This may have been reflected in one of the American Banker/Gallup findings: PC owners who said they used their computers for personal financial matters fell to 42% from 49% in 1995.
"There are people who say, 'Gee, this is too much like work, I'm going to stop doing this,"' Mr. Shay said. "That is consistent with what we hear when we talk to our customers. A lot of these products are sold to people who have the best of intentions - it's like exercise."
Internet enthusiast James S. "Chip" Mahan, founder and president of the Internet-based Security First Network Bank, said he found the survey results "entirely predictable."
"PC banking, as slow as the Internet is today, is not a real pleasant experience," he said. "If you have a lot of graphics, it takes time to download. We've said from the beginning that browser banking is not going to take off until we have access to a fast, digital network."
The Gallup findings also seemed sound to William Randle, senior vice president of Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, which began using Security First software to offer transactional capabilities over the Internet last year. He said most banks have not been strongly marketing on-line services, and the products are mostly new and "vanilla."
Mr. Randle predicted on-line banking would take off in 1997.
"I think we're still very early in the cycle," he said. "There's going to be an absolute tidal wave of customer desire to be able to access this particular channel."
Mr. Randle said screen phones and televisions with embedded Internet browsers would fuel interest, especially among the majority of people who do not have home computers.
"When people thought radio wasn't going anywhere, suddenly the Sony Walkman takes everyone by storm," he said. "The PC as a consumer device has only been around 20 years, and it's only within the last few years that there's been any kind of exciting interface."
Paraphrasing from MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte's book "Being Digital," Mr. Randle said, "Computers aren't about computing anymore, they're about the way people live. I fully believe the demand for this type of service will be a demand-pull from the consumers, as opposed to a demand-push from the banks."
Cheryl O'Donoghue, director of marketing at the research firm FTR Inc. in Lombard, Ill., suggested a more sobering reason that on-line transaction use is not growing faster.
"It's a sad point, but increasingly our base of banking customers is using a wider variety of financial services providers, which is kind of cannibalizing banks' deposit accounts," she said.
Anne Morgan Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp. of Atlanta, said unfamiliarity with the technology is a more likely limiting factor.
"We still have only 60% of consumers with over $15,000 of income who use ATMs," she said. "You can't expect overnight success. You've got to change habits. The important thing is, (home banking has) started and it's moving forward."
Matthew Lawlor, president of Online Resources and Communications Corp., said he expects the interests of computer owners to evolve toward financial transactions.
"It doesn't surprise me that most people are thinking of E-mail, the Internet, and on-line services," he said. "But this isn't to say there isn't a next step.
"You're up and running on AOL, you're into your Internet provider, why not go to the bank? The bank is not the driver for the PC - it's the tag- along."
"The issue for banks is not numerically how big (the customer number) is, it is what is the profitability of those using the PCs, how much of the retail banking franchise do they represent," said Mr. Mehta of Boston Consulting Group. "Our research would suggest that there is a significant overlap between the most profitable customers and the early adopters."
Indeed, 77% of financial-consumer households above $75,000 in annual income have PCs and 65% have modems, compared with 48% and 36% of the total American Banker/Gallup sample. One-third of the current on-line banking users were in that income category.
James R. Beams, a consulting analyst at Tower Group of Newton, Mass., suggested there are limits to how many consumers will ultimately cotton to home banking, and it is not as high as some bankers would like to believe. "If it gets to 10 million people - or 10% - in five years, I think that's pretty good growth," he said.
Mr. Beams cited the experiences of banks that began pushing home banking early. "Citibank and BayBanks got 10% of their demand deposit accounts on- line in six to nine months," he said. "If all of the banks were offering this and marketing this, what is a realistic penetration rate? We're seeing 8% to 10% of the DDA base pretty consistently."
James Marks, an analyst at CS First Boston in New York, said despite the "air of inevitability in the industry" about home banking, there was no guarantee of mass popularity. "Right now there's not a compelling reason for people to go to it," he said.
However, he said the research findings may not be the last word on future demand for home banking.
"In the initial surveys Texas Instruments did regarding hand-held calculators in the early 1970s, engineers said, 'What a neat tool, but we're perfectly happy with slide rules,'" Mr. Marks said. "Until someone has something that they can use and play with and put into practice, it's very hard to predict what the ultimate adoption and utilization rate is going to be."