Bank of America Corp. says it will close several hundred branches in the next few years as changing consumer banking preferences, including the growing popularity of electronic banking services, force the company to reexamine its branch network.

At the same time, the company will open branches in markets where it sees growth opportunities, particularly in the West and in booming states such as Florida. Branch closings are to significantly outnumber openings, however, a spokesman said.

Bank of America is the product of a 1998 merger between San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., that created a massive, coast-to-coast retail network, with 4,500 branches in 21 states. The Charlotte-based, post-merger company has $656 billion of assets.

As more retail customers use telephone banking, Internet banking, and supermarket branches to handle their transactions, Bank of America has seen declines in branch use in some areas. Analysts, who have been briefed on the company's plans, agreed with the strategy, especially because the company has invested heavily in alternative banking services.

"As people continue to move to different delivery channels, it makes sense for them to do this," said John B. Moore, an analyst in Charlotte for Wachovia Securities Inc. "They operate one of the bigger Internet operations in the U.S. They also are very big in grocery stores in Florida."

This year the company plans to close about 300 branches and open about 70, said Catherine Murray, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. in New York. She said the numbers were recently disclosed by Bank of America president and chief operating officer Kenneth D. Lewis.

"It would make sense that they would continue to do something like this in the future," said Ms. Murray. "Branch transaction volumes have been down 6% to 8%" each year recently.

The efficiency campaign is companywide, and the rate of branch closings will be about 200 a year for the next several years, according to the company. It would not specify how many closings are planned overall nor say how many years the campaign is expected to last.

Analysts said Bank of America will probably target branch closings in rural or slow-growth markets, including parts of the Midwest. It also is expected to look for closing opportunities in areas where it has a high concentration of branches. In these areas, it may shut down sites that are not meeting financial expectations.

"Bank of America has done this in the past from time to time but maybe not to this degree," Mr. Moore said. He said it makes sense for the company to shutter branches in slower-growing markets and to focus on areas with bigger potential.

It may also be time to prune a tree that has gotten bigger and bigger through acquisitions since the beginning of the last decade, analysts said.

"I'm not surprised," said Denis Laplante, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton Inc. "They went through the '90s buying up a lot of properties. Now they're in a period of rationalization."

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