SEATTLE - Seafirst Bank, long one of the industry's most sophisticated users of technology, is pushing the edge of banking's electronic envelope with a network of self-service centers.

The Seattle-based subsidiary of BankAmerica Corp. has already opened futuristic facilities at three shopping malls in Washington State. Five or six more may come on line by the end of the year.

At each facility, customers can use automated teller machines, operate touch-screen product information displays, and place calls on customer service telephones.

Video Conferencing Feature

But the highlight is a video conferencing system that lets the consumer talk on a speaker telephone with a Seafirst salesperson whose sales pitch is illustrated on an interactive computer screen. A full range of banking and investment products is available, and sales can be closed on site.

It's all part of Seafirst's quest to fined alternative avenues for reaching consumers besides traditional branches.

Bank officials are convinced that emerging technologies such as wireless communications, digital multimedia, and interactive video are creating revolutionary new ways to sell financial products.

Seafirst's self-service centers - like a handful of similar experimental facilities operated by other financial institutions - provide a test of whether such technologies can provide a competitive edge.

Cost Savings

In addition, the centers promise to save big bucks. The cost of installing a facility is about one-third the expense of a traditional branch.

And since a centralized sales force can serve a number of locations by telephone and video, staffing costs are also slashed.

"We are going to give it a real shot to see if it is a viable delivery system," said John V. Rindlaub, Seafirst's chairman and chief executive.

Seafirst, Washington's biggest bank with $15 billion of assets, is a retail powerhouse. It has more branches than any other financial institution in the state and controls about a 20% share of deposits held by the states' banks, thrifts, and credit unions.

Its 2.12% annualized return on assets in the third quarter ranked it as the most profitable bank of its size in the nation.

Electronics Wizard

Over the years, the Seattle bank has built a reputation as a leader in using electronics to reach customers.

In addition to its network of 235 traditional branches and 39 in-store branches, Seafirst operates a round-the-clock telephone banking service.

Many of the bank's 667 ATMs, integrated into BankAmerica's Versateller system, offer such unusual features as postage stamps and rapid transit passes.

Seafirst officials say consumers already carry out half their transactions on ATMs or over the telephone. Bank executives are convinced that some customers are ready for more advanced self-service options.

"This is really a natural progression from ATMs and 24-hour teleservice," said executive vice president Kathryn L. Munro, Seafirst's manager of retail delivery systems, about the new electronic centers. "We feel that it offers another choice."

Across the country, several banks have installed the main features of Seafirst's centers, including the interactive video and the touch-screen terminals. For example, Pennsylvania-based PNC Bank Corp. has opened a video conferencing office in the Pittsburgh airport.

But the president of the North Carolina company that sells the video system says no other bank has put it all together the way Seafirst has.

"They have taken three concepts - cash transactions, product sales and information services - and are using the proper technologies in unison," said Richard J. D'Agostino, chief of Personal Financial Assistant Inc. "Most banks don't take the time to do the real classy act that Seafirst does."

Seafirst calls the interactive video unit supplied by Mr. D'Agostino's company "Banker-On-Call."

A customer enters a private booth and telephones a sales specialist in one of five product areas: loans, investment products, retirement accounts, credit cards, and checking and savings accounts.

A presentation is displayed on a screen controlled by the salesperson. Documents are printed and signed using a laser printer and scanner.

Seafirst customized the system by improving the resolution of the video monitor. It also enlarged the booth and screen so more than one person can talk with the salesperson at a time.

Those who don't want to hear a sales pitch can get details on product features, rates, and fees from a touch-screen window manufactured by NCR Corp.

Taking Pains to Explain

For at least the next six months, Seafirst is stationing staff members at each center to explain the system to customers. But eventually they will be removed, making the centers true self-service facilities.

After opening the first locations. Seafirst decided that customers needed more help. The bank clarified the signs at the centers and installed endless tape loops that explain the features.

Not surprisingly, Seafirst's rivals claim they are not impressed.

"There's more sizzle than substance," said U.S. Bancorp senior vice president Richard W. Comandich, who heads alternative retail systems for the Oregon-based bank company. "It's not certain the extent to which consumers will use these centers."

Deanna Oppenheimer, marketing chief of Seattle-based Washington Mutual Savings Bank, said the thrift's research showed only a limited market for self-service electronic banking, though she conceded demand could grow in the future.

"Seafirst could fall into the trap of being too far ahead of the market." she warned.

Personal Touch

Competitors also suggest that Seafirst's concentration on hightech electronic systems may leave an opening for institutions that provide direct human interaction with a high level of personal service.

"From a competitive perspective, we can promote a [personal] relationship alternative," Ms. Oppenheimer said.

Seafirst's competitors agree that banks can't afford to ignore interactive technology. But they argue that in the long run most consumers will prefer to use such methods at home on their computers or televisions.

Seafirst officials respond that they have done extensive market research and carefully weighed the pros and cons of self-service banking at remote locations.

"Look at brick and mortar, and the average age of people using that system," Mr. Rindlaub argued. "It's younger people who are using ATMs and telephones."

"Over time, we will have fewer people using traditional delivery systems and more people using alternatives."

In the Mood to Buy

Seafirst chose mall locations because they provide opportunities to reach large numbers of people who are in a buying mood, including current bank customers and noncustomers.

What's more, Seafirst stresses that the self-service centers are alternatives to, not substitutes for the branches.

"It would only be negative if you forced customers to use the centers," Ms. Munro said. "But we have such a good traditional branch system."

Still, it is a big leap from ATMs and telephones to interactive video technology. The older electronic systems specialize in transactions, but the new system is designed to peddle products.

"That's the question," Ms. Munro admitted. "Can we sell in an environment that is not a traditional branch?"

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