Bankers have come away from their early testing of the Internet both optimistic and wary, according to survey results being released today by consultants at Grant Thornton.
Six out of 10 bankers surveyed this spring said they had attracted new customers by virtue of their company's presence on the Internet's World Wide Web.
But two out of three described themselves as "very concerned about the security of on-line banking transactions" - which may help explain why the industry has been slow to deliver its full range of services over the Internet.
The ambivalence appears typical of many traditional businesses as they tentatively explore the new medium. Diane M. Casey, the Washington-based Grant Thornton partner who directed the survey, said: "The Internet has more potential to revolutionize the banking industry than the abolition of the Glass-Steagall Act.
"Bankers are saying they want to be on the Web to increase their customer base and be competitive. With that kind of modernization, whether or not you repeal Glass-Steagall is almost a moot point."
The study, like many recent attempts to size up the Internet's viability for banking and commerce, was admittedly modest. Grant Thornton identified and approached 276 U.S. banks of all sizes that were operating Web sites in April, and 44 completed six-page questionnaires that were sent out in May.
Though there are now at least 100 more domestic banks on the Web, plus perhaps 700 from other countries, the answers to Grant Thornton's questions indicate that opinions are strong and consistent within the community of innovators.
Bankers were asked to cite their reasons for establishing Web sites, and 59% said it was to be perceived as a leader, while 52% mentioned advertising and marketing purposes. Other motives cited frequently were: to increase the customer base and to stay competitive with other banks. Each was mentioned by 39% of the respondents.
Bankers at large and small institutions had similar stories to tell.
"One day a man walked in and opened an account just because he saw our Web site," said Darian Scott, a loan review officer at $216 million-asset Central National Bank in Waco, Tex. "Others have contacted us about property for sale because of a section on the Web page."
Central National Bank does not put account information in view of Internet customers, but it does provide links to bond rates and stock performance data.
Bank of Boston Corp., meanwhile, has taken advantage of the Internet's electronic mail capability, inviting customers to click on an E-mail icon to get information. Inquiries have come from as far away as Estonia.
"We got one request for an $11 million defined contribution plan that is still pending," said Ray Graber, a Bank of Boston consultant. "If we were to get that deal, that will go a long way toward paying for the development of the site," which he said cost almost $200,000.
Bankers say their uncertainty about security - which would not get in the way of contacts like the Bank of Boston example - extends to customers. About half of those surveyed deemed their customers "very concerned" about on-line transaction security.
Half also said they were "very concerned about hackers accessing our customer files via the Internet."
Banks' cost of entry is low: 52% said their initial Web site investment was below $5,000 and only 9% spent more than $50,000.
Because of the low cost and the fast-moving nature of the Internet, banks have been acting first and planing later, said Ms. Casey, Grant Thornton's national director of financial services. Only 30% of the respondents had written business plans for their Web sites, and 27% conducted market research before setting them up.