At last week's Retail Delivery 2000 conference in New Orleans, Fiserv Inc. set up a game-show-style booth it called a Money Machine, where torrents of air blew dollar bills in swirls. People who listened to a short presentation could enter the contraption and try to grab cash for a few minutes.
The machine was an apt metaphor for the conference, a technology expo sponsored by the Bank Administration Institute, Chicago. The 3,000 bankers and 6,000 vendors in attendance had come in search of ways to capture money through high-tech means, and many of them had the feeling that all the options available left them grasping helplessly for direction.
Technologies of both the old and the new economy were on display. ICI Security Systems showed off some old-fashioned dye packs that, when placed in the cash canisters of automated teller machines, exploded if a thief tipped or dislodged the ATM. Among the more cutting-edge products showcased was the ezCard wireless wallet from Trintech Inc., a piece of software that lets mobile phone users make Internet purchases by entering a code used as a password rather than a credit card number.
Keynote speaker Pete Kight, chairman and chief executive officer of CheckFree Holding Corp., compared the Internet revolution to the building of the first trans-Atlantic communications cable, in 1866. The cable cut the time to send and receive information, and the Internet is speeding up consumers' financial services shopping. Mr. Kight called on bankers to "change the way we organize our business," or fall prey to nimble nonbank companies.
Some of these nonbanks attended the conference to explain their operations. AAA, the auto club that began offering banking services to its 39 million members through M&I Bank in April, called customer relationship management the cornerstone of its cross-selling effort.
AAA plans to offer lending services or insurance to a customer who has bought a new car.
Nonbankers such as AAA were not the only ones serving up distasteful medicine to the technology bankers. The second day of the conference opened with a panel of consumers who had participated in a BAI survey; they told the crowd how hard it was to get a live, knowledgeable service representative on the phone and said that bank fees were out of control.
One panelist named Maria received a spontaneous round of applause when she exclaimed "I love my bank!" But after fondly describing the tellers who remember her name and give her four children lollipops, she complained that she had to change banks three times to find one that would waive a $5 monthly fee for her Girl Scout troop's checking account. "We have to sell 10 boxes of cookies to make five dollars," the New Jersey homemaker said.
After the consumers had their say, industry experts got to take their whacks. Andrew Lippman, founding member and associate director of the MIT Media Lab, chided bankers from New Jersey for charging fees to the Girl Scouts. Mr. Lippman warned, "Somebody will come along and invent something that bypasses banks."
All the chiding took place alongside the showmanship and hoopla that have come to be associated with the industry's biggest technology conference. In the exhibit hall, bankers could practice golf putts, learn to make jambalaya, or play blackjack. In one new and curious spectacle, a man carried a three-foot alligator through the exhibit hall and wrestled it periodically.
Mr. Kight of CheckFree urged bankers to be as aggressive in getting under their control what he called "the opportunity of this banking generation."
He said banks are perfectly positioned to become the primary providers of payment and other types of services over the Internet.
"You have a sledgehammer in your hands," he said. "I urge you to use it."
Megan J. Ptacek