To Seattle-area residents, the newest branch of Washington Mutual Inc. may appear to be unstaffed, but in the thrift's eyes, that is just an illusion.

The branch, opened in an area department store in April, is filled not with employees, but with video conferencing equipment that lets customers - and potential customers - talk to account representatives located at a remote call center.

The $20 billion-asset thrift plans to open a second automated branch next month.

"The hope for interactive video is that we can expand in markets that we normally couldn't cover geographically," said Michael Amato, senior vice president for consumer banking.

Mr. Amato said the new branch, located 20 minutes north of Seattle in Lynnwood, reaped 200 new accounts in its first 30 days. He said it was "our third-best branch opening in terms of new accounts."

The triangle-shaped branch, located near the grocery section of a Fred Meyer retail store, includes three automated teller machines on one side, including two that perform advanced functions.

In the center is a group of video monitors that play clips of Washington Mutual commercials interspersed with a news feed.

And on another side of the triangle are two interactive video monitors with private desks. Using touch screens, customers can open accounts, get information on investment products, and perform other transactions around the clock.

Washington Mutual has 260 branches in five states, including 75 in-store branches.

The new self-service branch was designed by NCR of Dayton, Ohio, which has created 14 similar branches for Huntington Bancshares.

Rob Evans, director of self-service-product marketing for NCR, said the automated branches are frequently used for prospecting, because users do not need to be existing customers or have personal identification numbers.

"You really can't open up an account from a bank of ATMs," he noted.

Mr. Evans said banks are increasingly turning to self-service branches to save money.

"It's getting harder and harder to come by talented staff, and it's even more daunting when you consider having to put someone in however many branches you have," he said.

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