SAN FRANCISCO - Taking a page from high-service and high-tech retailers, Washington Mutual Inc. is opening 21 new branches in Nevada - five this week - that it hopes will snatch at least 8,600 retail households from competing banks and thrifts over the next 12 months.

Wamu is using a branch design that accommodates hand-held devices in its bid to mine a retail market it says has been ill-served. If it succeeds, the cutting-edge stores will be replicated at all Wamu branches.

While the environment of these stores may be unorthodox for banks, it is not unfamiliar to customers of Gap or Hertz, which have been using mobile interactive technology for sometime. Wamu's other models include upscale stores like Nordstrom's.

"We looked at a number of retailers and picked what would work best for us," said Deanna Oppenheimer, president and head of consumer banking at the Seattle thrift. "There's a huge opportunity to bring together land- and Internet-based banking."

Wamu is testing the newfangled branches in Nevada. Customers are greeted as soon as they walk in by a concierge station where a representative using a Palm Pilot-size device with a printer on one side and a screen on the other can deposit checks or takes loan payments.

Other features include couches furnished with product-information computers and a help button that beckons a bank representative.

The glass-enclosed teller wall has been replaced by what Wamu calls a "teller tower" - a semicircle of computer-topped stands. And in a move that Ms. Oppenheimer says should cut down on waiting time as well as back-office workload, tellers do not count bills. Instead, when a check is cashed the money is dispensed automatically from a slot at leg-level to the customer.

Along with a play area for kids are stands hawking financial education products.

The $186.5 billion-asset thrift company even plans to provide pagers to customers for their bank shopping convenience.

All these efforts should enable customers "to drive the process as much or as little" as they want, Ms. Oppenheimer said.

Wamu did 18 months of research and planning, including a survey and three focus groups Twenty-five percent of the 300 consumers surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the service provided by the three largest banking companies in Washington - Wells Fargo & Co., Norwest Financial Corp., and Bank of America Corp.

"Customers want efficiency and they want a free-form environment, where they can be educated, not sold," said Wamu market research manager Ron Gailey.

The new branches are the backbone to Wamu's push into a state where it has only had a presence through its mortgage lending business, which currently serves 8,600 households and aims to double that number.

Design Forum of Dayton, Ohio, which counts Ann Taylor Stores Corp. and Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores as its clients, designed the new Wamu branches.

If all goes well in Nevada, Wamu will expand the project to its other major markets, including California and the Pacific Northwest, and to another state where it has no retail branches. It did not identify that state.

Stealing its competitors' customers will not be without hurdles for Wamu. Wells and Bank of America Corp. have been polishing their customer service since they completed big mergers last year.

Wells Fargo has adopted more of Norwest Financial Corp.'s relationship-driven consumer strategy since it bought Norwest in 1998. That means making sure there are "banking stores" where people want them and plenty of staff in the stores, said Laura Schulte, president of Wells Fargo Nevada.

Asked about Wamu's survey, Ms. Schulte said Washington customers who left Wells in 1998 after the old Wells bought First Interstate "would not have any knowledge of the service we have today."

Wells' First Interstate acquisition was widely viewed as disastrous; the integration alienated many retail customers.

But Ms. Schulte said there is proof that her company has recovered: Retail deposits have grown 5% to 6% in Nevada over the last year. Wells plans to add three more stores this year, two in Las Vegas.

One Wall Streeter gave Wamu's initiative the thumbs-up. "At worst, they've made a very small capital commitment, and they don't have to announce another big acquisition," said Bruce Harting, financial institutions analyst at Lehman Brothers.

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