The hotly contested race for retail customers here notched up a few degrees this week as SunTrust Banks Inc. introduced the latest in a series of "cash-back" offers from major local banks.

Atlanta-based SunTrust this week began offering grocery store coupons worth $101 to customers who transfer balances of at least $2,500 from other financial institutions. The coupons are good only in Publix supermarkets in Atlanta, where SunTrust has been installing in-store branches.

"We just wanted to play up the association with Publix," said SunTrust spokesman Hugh Suhr. "We want to make sure folks that are evaluating their options are aware of our association with Publix."

SunTrust currently operates four in-store branches in Atlanta, with 19 slated to be open by yearend.

SunTrust's promotion is only the latest bid for deposits in Atlanta's fiercely competitive market. Wachovia Corp. last month introduced a $100 cash-back offer on four different accounts, most of which required a $10,000 minimum deposit.

Wachovia's campaign appeared shortly after First Union Corp. dangled a $50 incentive in front of customers for opening an account by phone and depositing a minimum of $1,000. The Georgia unit of SouthTrust Corp., meanwhile, offers free checking accounts.

"The reason they're doing it is the sense of urgency to establish themselves as the provider of financial services in an ever-changing arena," said Paul McCarthy, senior vice president with FISI-Madison Financial, a marketing consulting firm.

Increased competition from nonbank financial institutions and new forms of electronic banking have spurred banks to greater efforts to establish core customer relationships, according to Mr. McCarthy. "In every major metropolitan market right now, you have got to cut through the clutter," he said.

Joe Hagen, president of 20/20 Financial Research Corp., Nashville, said competition is fierce across the Southeast, but the Atlanta cash-back promotions are the most aggressive he has seen.

"Although other banks are considering them, I don't see this as being a big trend," he added. "The economics of it are just not that attractive. In my experience, the demographics of people that move bank relationships for these kinds of offers is not the most desirable."

Mr. Suhr said SunTrust required a $2,500 minimum deposit precisely to screen out opportunistic account switchers. SunTrust's offer expires Aug. 31.

SunTrust's Publix promotion is strikingly similar to those initiated earlier in the decade by Bank South Corp., now part of NationsBank Corp. Bank South, which operated Atlanta's largest in-store branching network through the Kroger chain, once offered discounts on Kroger groceries to customers who moved their accounts from other banks.

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