The number of consumers banking on-line could double or triple during the next 12 months, two research organizations have concluded.
Citing their recent survey of 3,255 U.S. households, Find/SVP and Jupiter Communications said 2.1 million households are using personal computers to do their banking transactions.
This form of home banking is "very likely to begin" in 2.5 million more households during the next year, the researchers projected, and "somewhat likely to begin" in 4.7 million.
The numbers lend support to banks that have been waiting for PC-banking growth to approach that in the general home computer market. The New York- based research organizations said interest in the Internet is fueling the momentum, though most PC banking is done via conventional dial-up connections.
"We're seeing tremendous growth in home Internet usage, led by both baby boomers and younger householders," said survey co-director Thomas E. Miller, vice president of the Find/SVP, which released the results this week.
"That trend, together with the increased use of the PC for personal finance applications, is driving this sector and creating tremendous opportunity," he said.
Households using the Internet and commercial on-line services increased in the last year to 16% from 10%, the survey showed.
On-line services, led by America Online Inc., expanded their market by 28%, while the number of new households signing on directly to the World Wide Web rose 138%.
The margin of error in the Find/SVP-Jupiter survey was plus or minus 2.83%. Project sponsors included America Online, Fidelity Investments, KeyCorp, Price Waterhouse, and Wells Fargo & Co.
On the down side, the researchers said nearly half of PC owners expressed concerns about privacy and fraud. About 40% said they had no need for on-line banking or did not know enough about it to make an assessment.
But bankers said the general receptivity to home banking is encouraging.
Consumers in three of four households said they were willing to pay for the electronic convenience. For a bundle of financial services that included on-line access to their bank, most said they would not balk at a monthly fee of $10.
"This forces us to revisit our decision that we should offer home banking for free," said Richard F. Goebel, KeyCorp's vice president of electronic commerce.
The Cleveland-based banking company has been planning to introduce direct-dial home banking by the end of the year and Internet-based account access and bill payment in the first quarter of next year, he said.
"For me, the study validated the view that bankers have a one-shot window of opportunity to get into the on-line market," said Mr. Goebel, who sat in on several focus groups. "Customers really trust banks. You hear that all the time, and I was skeptical about that until I heard it directly from the customers."
Consumers viewed banking as their most common household financial chore and wanted easy account access to be at the core of any electronic offering.
When consumers rated a range of on-line financial services - including investment advice, stock quotations and trades, insurance information, and banking - banking came out on top.
"Banking is the linchpin of any bundle of services, but consumers didn't indicate that it needed to come from a bank," said Adam Schoenfeld, a vice president of Jupiter Communications and a co-director of the survey.
"There is a high market readiness for on-line banking," he said. "Banks have not done a good job, until now, in meeting it."
He predicted banks will get into "a slugfest with brokerages over the next one or two years to carve out market share."
The survey found that 37% of the households had personal computers, up a statistically insignificant percentage point from last year. More significantly, modems - dialing devices that connect home computers to networks - were reported in 23% of homes, up from 17%.
"I can now look a client in the eye and give a business case for remote banking," said Gary Meshell, director of electronic financial services at Price Waterhouse. "We now have the raw data to say, 'Here is the model, the profit opportunity, and here are the customers.'"
Significant customer interest also was found in television as a banking method. Even 21% of PC owners said they would prefer to handle their financial services via TV.
"There is an open-mindedness on the part of consumers and a growing dissatisfaction with the current state of going on-line," said Mr. Miller.
Respondents who favored the television tended to be young, unmarried, and less likely to use commercial on-line services such as America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy. They tended to have slower modems and were less likely to have multiple telephone lines.
"Much of this response grew out of contention in a household between using the telephone and a PC modem," said Brendan P. Elliott, president of C+C Data Inc., which conducted the focus group research.
"On the positive side, consumers want to get more out of each hour they have available and imagine piggyback-watching television with paying bills."
Intuit Inc.'s Quicken remained the clear leader in personal finance software, with more than three times the number of users as Microsoft Corp.'s Money.
In its analysis of customer demand, the survey identified four reasons for the rapid spread of PC banking.
*Consumers see the computer as a powerful tool for keeping records and categorizing spending for tracking needs and tax purposes.
*Consumers have the need for more relevant investment information. Neither baby boomers nor "Generation Xers" view traditional brokers or discount brokers as friendly, especially to novices in the market. The younger consumers increasingly view electronic services as less intimidating and more personalized.
*Consumers want to comparison-shop for financial services such as insurance. Investment and insurance companies' wide array of products has stimulated interest in shopping for the best deal by going on-line.
*Traditional attitudes such as deciding to use a bank according to its location are changing, due to mergers and consolidations.
"Name changes undermine the feeling that nearness is more trustworthy," Mr. Miller said. Instead, consumers are becoming more receptive to companies that offer "do it yourself" accounts, automated help, and electronic mail access to customer service.
Among the 2.1 million homes that currently bank on-line, 72% conduct balance inquiries and 59% pay bills. Customers who pay bills on-line send an average of 11 electronic bills a month.