Already a leader in supermarket branches, National Commerce Bancorp has joined another trend with its decision to improve the technology at all its retail locations.

The Memphis-based institution this week purchased $1.2 million in hardware and services to replace its controller-based branch systems with local area networks of personal computers.

Tying branch PCs together is one of the banking industry's highest retail priorities for the next few years, according to an American Bankers Association operations survey.

Miles Ahead

Local area networks allow for smoother exchanges of information and for easier software development than many of the antiquated branch systems that are currently installed in the United States.

By midyear 1094, National Commerce expects to have finished installing 500 personal computers in the 65 branches it operates in Tennessee and Virginia.

"The PCs will give us a lot more flexibility in our software development so we can use more of the tools that are out there," said Pat Lampley, first vice president at National Commerce, which has $2.5 billion of assets.

"Our first goal will be to get some of the redundant things that the tellers are doing out of the way so that they can service people more quickly."

High-Powered Computers

The PCs, which will be supplied by Unisys Corp., Bluebell, Pa., all have 486 processors. While bankers have found these powerful computers perfect for handling the complex functions of the platform station, many have shied away from installing them at teller stations where the transaction set is typically limited and simple.

National Commerce, however, is in a different situation from most institutions in that the majority of its branches - 49 of 65 - are in supermarkets.

Because these branches tend to have limited space, the computers must have a particularly small footprint, which is true of the Unisys models that National Lampley.

An increasing number of financial institutions are looking to supermarket branches as a way to improve customer convenience and increase the bank's contact with noncustomers who might be persuaded to open accounts.

International Banking Technologies, a Nocross, Ga.-based consulting firm, counts over 1,750 supermarket branches in the United States. This is roughly 3% of all domestic branches. By 1998, the number is expected to rise to more than 4,000.

But even at branches in more traditional locations, the power of the personal computer is becoming a necessary part of increasingly aggressive selling techniques.

"As bankers want to do more selling, they are increasingly willing to install PCs anyplace a customer contact might occur, including the teller line," said James Moore, president of Mentis Corp., which is based in Salisbury, Md.

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