A growing number of banks are tailoring supermarket branches for their small-business customers.
Banks are reported to be using the outlets to provide more convenience and to shepherd small-business customers - who are branch regulars - to a less expensive delivery facility.
"Small-business application is growing steadily at in-store branches," said Douglas W. Ferris Jr., president of Memphis-based National Commerce Bank Services, a subsidiary of National Commerce Bank Corp. and one of the country's three major supermarket branch vendors.
Mr. Ferris said he has noted the use of National Commerce Bank in-store branches by entrepreneurs and has seen growing interest by his commercial clients. The company has explored the concept with small-business focus groups.
When Mr. Ferris and bankers pitch the concept to entrepreneurs, many of whom visit branches every day for cash and coin needs and make deposits, they point out that the branches are open later and on weekends and are more secure than free-standing branches.
"When they find out about what a supermarket branch is and that they're open until 7 or 8 and on Saturday and Sundays, they like it," he said.
The challenge for bankers is to staff the branches with properly trained employees, Mr. Ferris said.
Staff members must be trained to "understand the needs of the small businessman and woman and make them feel important," he said.
M&T Bank, Buffalo, is conducting a pilot of small-business-focused supermarket branches, but bank officials would not comment on the project.
Barnett Banks, which plans to open about 400 supermarket branches, plans to integrate small-business functions into its outlets, said Steve Hickman, director of small business banking for the Jacksonville, Fla., company.
Mr. Hickman said small businesses have expressed interest in the branches.
"The only thing they said was missing that they would like to see was a drive-through window in the supermarket," he joked.
The experience of Bank of America indicates that entrepreneurs are willing to use the outlets, said spokeswoman Lisa Margolin-Feher. Of its 350 California supermarket branches, 48 are full-service facilities that offer a full line of business products.
About 20% of the sales at the 48 branches are business related, a proportion consistent with sales at regular branches, she said.