Archive for Sunday, April 4, 1999

LIKE THE WEB, ONLINE BANKING TAKES OFF LIKE WILDFIRE

April 4, 1999

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More and more consumers are learning that while they need banking services, they don't necessarily need physical banks.

It seems like Mike O'Donnell is always on the run. In meetings all morning and out making calls all afternoon, his business keeps him jumping.

So, after finding his bank's office closed once too often when he finally had time to get there, he decided to move his accounts to cyberspace.

"I can bank online at my convenience," said O'Donnell, executive director of Wakarusa Valley Development Corp. "I can do it when I have the need instead of driving down to my bank, or calling, and waiting for someone to help me."

Before, if the bank had closed for the day -- or the week -- he was out of luck. No more.

The promise of online banking has been around for years, but the explosion in the use of personal computers and the booming popularity of the Internet have turned the promise into reality.

At first the domain of big national banks that could afford the technology, even smaller banks now are offering secure, richly featured online banking options in Lawrence.

And customers are jumping at the chance to give up the teller line for the computer mouse.

"We think that Lawrence is probably one of the most responsive markets for that type of service," said Brad Chindamo, president of Central National Bank in Lawrence. "It's an educated, relatively young community. There seems to be a higher demand for those types of services."

Chuck Warner, president of Mercantile Bank-Lawrence, said his company has been signing up about 150 customers a day for its month-old Online Banking product. And it's not even being advertised.

The company said it expected to have 2.6 percent of its retail customers online by the end of the year.

But online banking is not just popular in Lawrence.

Across the nation, more and more consumers are learning that while they need banking services, they don't necessarily need physical banks. They can access their accounts via dedicated phone lines or through the Internet.

The total number of households banking online, including use of the Internet, has increased to about 7.5 million, nearly double the amount just a year ago. By next year, many banking experts project that number to soar to about 10 million, or 10 percent of U.S. households.

"In terms of convenience, this is the most exciting innovation in banking since ATMs," said Steve Milstad, vice chairman for operations at St. Louis-based Mercantile.

Online bank customers can keep an eye on their account activity, pay bills, balance checkbooks, download statements to their personal finance software, view images of checks that have cleared, transfer funds between accounts and sometimes even fill out loan applications.

"The possibilities are endless," Chindamo said.

Lawrence residents interested in electronic banking probably won't have to change where they bank, because most of the area's banks offer some form of the service.

Electronic banking was first offered in 1995, when 16 of the nation's largest banks began the service through Intuit Inc.'s Quicken financial software. Those with a personal computer, modem and Quicken software were allowed to bank online for a monthly fee from $6 to $10.

Called "PC Banking," the first-generation system requires signing up, receiving software from the bank and installing it on your computer, then connecting directly to the bank's computer through a dial-up modem.

"The history of that has not been as successful" as Internet banking, Chindamo said.

That's because access is limited to a computer with the software installed, and banks found they had to provide lots of customer support.

During the past few years, banks have developed much simpler online banking software. Customers just log on to the site and it guides them through menus and instructions, just like surfing the Web.

And because it's accessed through any computer that has a connection to the Internet, it's much more portable.

Once online, customers usually are presented with icons that will allow them to check balances, transfer funds or pay bills. For example, they could look at all the debits and credits in their checking account for any period they choose. Or they could transfer money from their savings account into their checking account. They could pay bills by plugging in an amount and clicking the mouse.

Most banks offer the services for free, according to the American Bankers Assn. Others charge for some services, like bill-paying. Of those that charge, the association said, the average price ranges from $4 to $7 per month.

The programs let people such as O'Donnell, the businessman, keep track of his loan balance, interest rates and other information in minutes, whenever he wants to.

"It all gets back to the convenience," he said.

For example, if a creditor calls to say it didn't get a check, you can find out from home whether it cleared.

"You can log in to your account and see that the check has cleared, and even see an image of the canceled check," O'Donnell said. "Information is key in every facet of business or personal-type financing. Knowing when checks clear, knowing when deposits are available, that's pretty valuable."

-- Richard Brack's phone message number is 832-7194. His e-mail address is rbrack@ljworld.com.



Here's a look at some banks doing business in Lawrence that offer computer banking services:

Central National Bank. www.centralnational.com

Commerce Bank. www.commercebank.com

Douglas County Bank. www.douglascountybank.com

First Bank. www.firstbank1.com

Mercantile. www.mercantile.com

NationsBank. www.nationsbank.com

US Bank. www.usbank.com

UMB. www.umb.com

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