Bankers love their supermarkets.

The number of full-service supermarket branches jumped 40% last year to 4,398 at yearend, according to a study by International Banking Technologies, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that has long promoted them.

In addition banks opened about 400 supermarket minibranches, with one or two employees instead of five or six, the study found. That brought the grand total, including full-service, to over 4,800.

The supermarket branch "is a concept whose time has come," said John W. Garnett, president of the consulting firm. "There's tremendous potential for new business. The bank does not have to spend one nickle to advertise to bring the people in."

Opening full-service bank branches in grocery stores is not a recent phenomenon but has taken off in the last couple of years.

Such branches, cheaper to open and operate, increase customer access to services while providing a steady stream of potential new customers - everyone who walks in for a loaf of bread or a carton of milk.

The combination is proving nearly irresistible.

Some of the most aggressive supermarket branchers include Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco, which is opening about 700 supermarket banking locations, and Bank of America, which continues to add to its in-store network of 750 supermarket branches.

Barnett Banks Inc. is also jumping on the supermarket branching bandwagon. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based bank opened 12 in-store branches last year, using its hometown as its test market. The bank plans to add 40 such branches this year and another 40 in 1998 before it starts rolling out 80-plus per year in 1999, according to Jerri Franz, a spokeswoman.

And Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank Corp., which has about 150 in- store branches, has plans to add more than 200 by the end of 1999. The company is adding 80 this year alone.

"We want to serve our customers in the ways and the locations and configurations they most desire," said Ellison Clary, a NationsBank spokesman. "They are showing us they appreciate the availability of a banking center in a super market."

Mr. Clary said that while building loyalty with current customers, the in-store branches also provide the bank with an opportunity to sell its financial products.

Technology is spurring the growth of supermarket banking, speeding up routine transactions to give bank employees more time to prospect in the aisles, said Mr. Garnett of International Banking Technologies. Among the advances being deployed in supermarket branches are ATMs that cash checks; interactive video banking that gives customers access to discussions on loans and investments; and telephones linked to the bank's customer service center.

But not all banks are enamored with the idea.

First Union Corp. says the benefits are overrated. The Charlotte, N.C.- based bank has found that supermarket branches "tend to be more check cashing, more transaction-oriented," said Sandra Deem, a spokeswoman.

"People don't often come in to talk about a mutual fund or something like that. The people who are coming in to shop for groceries often don't generate the type of business we are looking for."

First Union has a handful of supermarket branches in Connecticut as the result of a recent acquisition but generally sells off such branches, said Ms. Deem.

Despite the naysayers, the surge in supermarket banking isn't expected to abate anytime soon.

"We believe an additional 900 to 1,200 new branches will open in 1997, continuing the march toward what we believe will be 7,500 of these branches by the year 2000," said Douglas W. Ferris Jr. president of National Commerce Bank Services Inc., a unit of National Commerce Bancorp., Memphis.

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