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By Robin Side
lWall Street Journal
Published: 1:23 AM - 05/15/2012 

The old-fashioned bank-teller line is getting an overhaul.

Banks are installing a raft of new gizmos—touch screens, video-tellers and self-serve kiosks with more functions than traditional automated-teller machines—in hopes of reducing waiting time for customers and freeing up employees to sell products that boost the bottom line.

The devices are the latest technological advances designed to make banking more ecient for the declining number of consumers who still use brick-and-mortar branches, while cutting costs at the same time.

Just as airlines now encourage passengers to check themselves in for ights, bank customers are increasingly able to cash checks, buy money orders and get cash in unusual denominations on their own—rather than tellers "doing all the work for the consumer," says Brian Bailey, vice president of branch transformation at NCR Corp. which makes ATMs and other equipment for the banking industry. It can even speed up transactions: Mr. Bailey estimates that antiquated computer systems require some tellers to make as many as 40 keystrokes for a simple deposit.

Starting this summer, Wells Fargo & Co. customers will be able to request an email receipt by tapping on a keypad at the teller window. Later in the year, they will be able to use the keypad to move funds between accounts.Talking to Tellers Remotely

Matthew McMahon, a teller for the Coastal Federal Credit Union, appears on a video kiosk at one of the credit union's branches in Raleigh, N.C.

"We continue to see a lot of relevance in our store-based transactions," says Jonathan Velline, executive vice president at Wells Fargo. The San Francisco-based banking giant has the largest U.S. branch network, with more than 6,000.

The new branch technology was a key topic earlier this month when Todd Maclin, who runs the consumerbanking division of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., addressed investors at an industry conference. The big New York bank is testing machines in a handful of branches that conduct teller-type transactions that can't be handled by an ATM. The bank says that check-cashing requests at the teller line dropped 40% after the self-service teller was introduced.

Mr. Maclin said that Chase is planning to expand the test to 100 branches later this year, and to 1,000 branches over the next 12 to 18 months. Such technology investments are expected to help it reduce branch operating costs by as much as $500 million a year.

The upgrades allow bank employees to focus on selling loans, mortgages and other products. Any increase in sales could be signicant as banks search for new ways to boost prots during a period of low interest rates, anemic loan demand and rising costs from new regulations.

Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina last year found a way to go high-tech without sacricing the virtues of face-to-face contact.

At Coastal's 15 branches, customers are directed to video screens that connect to 36 tellers in a room at the credit union's Raleigh headquarters. The tellers remotely authorize transactions, review check images and dispense cash, just as they would in person.

Willard Ross, chief retail ocer for the credit union, says the bank cut costs by 40% by eliminating its branch tellers. He says customers still get personal contact and the remote tellers can make judgment calls that an automated system can't, such as deciding whether a check can be cashed immediately.

"Branch managers don't have to worry about manning the teller operations anymore, so they can be totally focused on the members who walk in," Mr. Ross says. As a result, he says, product sales have nearly doubled in the branches.

The video-teller machines also can reduce a bank's real-estate costs because they take up far less room than a whole row of teller windows, NCR's Mr. Bailey says. They are about 20% more expensive than the average ATM, which costs about $45,000, he said.

Bank of America Corp. BAC -1.83% also has tested video-tellers in four of its markets and is currently reviewing the results, a spokeswoman said.

It isn't clear whether the industry's new eorts will take o, given that other technology tests haven't fared so well. Initial attempts to get people to bank from their home computers in the 1980s opped, for example.

Indeed, some consultants say people who typically go into a branch do so because they want human contact. "Pushing people to a screen doesn't necessarily meet the needs or desires of the consumer coming in," says Tom Mataconis, vice president at Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a rm in Charlotte, N.C., that advises the banking industry on technology issues.

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