Citibank has quietly joined the growing ranks of Internet-only banks.
It flipped the switch Monday on Citi f/i, a retail bank and brokerage accessible only through the Internet, telephones, and automated teller machines.
The Citigroup subsidiary joins Bank One Corp., which in June introduced WingspanBank.com, in pursuing an all-out effort to attract customers to an entirely direct, non-brick-and-mortar channel.
The strategy reflects the range of options that banks are exploring as they stake out positions on the Internet. Some ventures are purely direct or on-line; others offer Internet access as one of several available delivery alternatives.
Unlike WingspanBank.com, which has been heralded in a multimillion-dollar, multimedia advertising campaign, Citibank has opted for a "soft" rollout. The Citi f/i Web site appeared without any public announcement or advertising.
The offering represents the primary release of a "very dynamic" Internet strategy that will be rolled out after Jan. 1, a Citibank spokesman said.
In its current introductory phase, Citi f/i, which stands for financial interactive, offers deposit accounts, brokerage services through Citicorp Investment Services, and free bill payment and financial planning services.
The "much, much more expanded version," the spokesman said, will include loan and insurance services, as well as such nonfinancial offerings as travel services. Eventually, the service would be available internationally.
Citi f/i "will come out with a splash" when these offerings are added, predicted Christopher E. Musto, director of financial services at the Lincoln, Mass.-based research firm Gomez Advisors.
The Citibank spokesman, Mark Rodgers, said advertising for Citi f/i will initially be kept to a minimum, mostly in the form of Web banner ads. In the fall, Citi f/i is planning a direct mail marketing campaign to consumers outside the areas where the bank currently has branches.
Citi f/i is designed for people outside the bank's geographic footprint who prefer to use the Internet, and therefore access to branches is not part of the package, Mr. Rodgers said. For people in territories served by the branch bank, the company offers the Direct Access on-line service, currently used by 750,000 customers in 14 countries.
Branchless strategies have proven limiting to some Internet-only banks. Bank of Montreal, for example, introduced its mbanx offering with only telephone and ATM access, later adding the Internet. As customers began clamoring for a complementary physical presence, mbanx began allowing the use of Bank of Montreal branches.
Some newer Internet-only banks, such as Atlanta-based Security First Network Bank and Netbank, have also opened a limited number of branches.
Richard M. Kovacevich, chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co. said last week that his bank has no plans to create an Internet-only bank. "Our competitive advantage is that our customers have access to all of the channels they want to use," he said.
The low-key introduction of Citi f/i may be an exercise of caution against the risks of operating a bank with no physical presence, Mr. Musto said.
But Jim Laird, senior research director at the Boston-based Yankee Group, said Citibank could easily adjust its no-branch policy and bring Citi f/i customers "over the wall."
Like Internet-only banks, Citi f/i will offer competitive interest rates, rebates for fees incurred in automated teller machine networks, low-cost securities trades, and low minimum balances. Citibank has said that it would eventually offer financial products and services from other companies through its Internet bank.
Citi f/i and WingspanBank.com are likely to be seen as standard-setters in the Internet banking race. Both are emphasizing high-quality service over price, Mr. Musto said.
In contrast, the earlier Internet-only entrants called attention to interest-bearing checking accounts with rates as high as 6%.
Citi f/i's checking account earns no interest, though idle funds can be swept into other deposit and brokerage accounts. If linked to a money market account, they can earn 5%.
The newcomers are also stressing personalized financial planning. Mr. Musto said Citi f/i is taking the unique approach of making financial planners available over the phone at any time at no extra charge, as an enhancement to the financial planning resources on its Web site.
Similarly, WingspanBank.com has created a concierge service to assist customers in finding the best-priced travel deals.
Mr. Laird said Citibank is wisely leveraging its brand with the name Citi f/i. He said the suffix adds a unique Internet identity to a name that is viewed as capable of winning global recognition and acceptance.
The risk, Mr. Musto said, is that "a failure for Citi f/i would be a failure for Citi."
Citi f/i operates under the charter of Citibank FSB, the bank's thrift affiliate. The business head is Stephen P. Joyce. Product development work was done by the e-Citi advanced development group under corporate executive vice president Edward Horowitz.