NationsBank Corp. has been charging $1 to accept some deposits and is now expanding the program.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based company is assessing the fee on some customers who use counter items to do business at branches.
Counter items are blank deposit slips and checks that must have all account information filled out by hand.
NationsBank, which has $239 billion of assets, introduced the program in the Carolinas and Texas last year, took it to Florida last week, and will roll it out in Georgia in July.
Archrival First Union Corp., among others, is doing similar things to cover the costs of processing paper transactions. But regional rivals like Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett Banks Inc. and SouthTrust Corp. of Birmingham, Ala., said the charges are sure to outrage consumers.
"I think it's a great idea for NationsBank. I'm all for them gouging and taking advantage of their customers ... so they can lose them to us," said Thomas Coley, chairman of SouthTrust's Georgia subsidiary.
Indeed, the charges may draw the same kind of fire that engulfed First Chicago Corp. two years ago when it attached a teller fee to checking accounts under some circumstances.
The potential for customer revolt is too great for Barnett, said spokeswoman Jerri Franz. She said a Barnett branch manager recently suggested a similar charge after learning of NationsBank's plans. But corporate officials put the kibosh on that.
At NationsBank, officials pointed out that customers will get one free transaction a month before they are assessed the $1 charge.
Moreover, customers are better served by using preprinted slips, which tellers process faster and which reduce the likelihood of errors, said NationsBank officials.
"There's a service aspect and a cost aspect to this," said Fred Hannon, a NationsBank spokesman.
Kathryn H. Bissette, an analyst with Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc., said that NationsBank's move is symptomatic of strategic efforts by banks everywhere to enhance revenues and streamline operations.
"It's just part of the big plan for banks to continue to look wherever they can for fee income, whether it's higher ATM charges or other kinds of things," she said. "They are also trying to be more efficient to get the costs down."
Banking companies across the country have implemented a variety of new fees and restrictions on customers to change behavior and cut costs.
"There is a major trend afoot to better match customer profitability with delivery economics, and this is another example of trying to better match what it costs to do business with customer profitability," said Les Dinkin, managing principal with NBW Consulting.
At First Union, similar fees on counter items started two years ago. The company charges between 50 cents and $1, depending upon the market, for each transaction carried out with a counter slip. In some markets customers can avoid fees if they maintain certain minimum balances in their accounts.
Although NationsBank could not say how many of its customers would be affected by the new charges, First Union said about 10% of its customers were paying counter item fees.