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Automatic bank tellers do everything but say 'hello'

On Broadway they sing, "Where are the clowns?" In Boston they ask, "Where are the tellers?" The answer: They're being replaced by machines. And customers of the Shawmut Bank, which has what it thinks is one of the first no-teller branches in the country, apparently are as happy as clowns -- once they realize what's happening.

"Even with the pots on display," says spokesman Barrie MacKay, gesturing at the giveaway cookware inside the newly redone branch in Boston's Government Center, "they still don't know it's a bank."

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Gone are the bulletproof glass barriers, the long counters, and the sometimes- frazzled tellers. Gone, too, are the lines, as customers often spend only a minute in the bank.

Coming is the first wave of what banking officials generally see as a revolution in the way Americans do their banking: branches depending solely on automatic teller machines (ATM's) to take deposits, cash checks, and tell you your balance. Bank officers of the future will get involved only in such things as writing cashier's checks, accepting deposits in Deutchmarks, processing loan applications, or saying "hello."

At the Shawmut's Government Center branch, tucked into a pedestrian intersection in one of the city's busiest areas, the two ATMs are in a glassed-in foyer. The officers, who have no cash in their desks, sit in a carpeted office beyond. Saved are the costs of security measures, because the only cash in the branch is constantly locked up inside the ATM's own vault.

Contrary to some opinions, the result may also be a bank which is more, rather than less, personalized.

"If routine transactions are handled on the automatic teller," says branch manager Marion Condon, "we can handle the problem transactions." Freed from the detail of dealing merely with numbers, she now deals with the customers, stepping out into the foyer to chat with those she knows or assisting others still flummoxed by the machine.

So far, she says, the branch has lost no customers. Use of the machines has grown from an average of 4,000 transactions a month to about 12,000. The only loss has been in noncustomers, who can no longer cash checks drawn on the shawmut, buy food stamps, or do other transactions needing both tellers and cash.

Why, then, has the idea been so long in coming -- particularly in a country that loves to do business in a hurry?

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Part of the answer lies in uncertainties about customer acceptance. Mrs. condon admits that, before the new-style branch opened May 4, she was apprehensive. But, she says, "they love it." She tells of customers approaching the machine with childlike eagerness, ready to play with it as they would with a new toy.

Another part of the answer, according to Shawmut chairman John P. LaWare, lies in a level of government regulation unmatched in other countries. "The regulation of the banking system," he says, "was a knee-jerk reaction to the failures [of banks] in the '20s and '30s."

Now, these regulations rapidly are being relaxed. American banks, thrift institutions, money market funds, insurance companies, and other operations are increasingly able to compete for the nation's banking customers.

But regulations still collar the growth of tellerless branches. Massachusetts, for example, which rank 43 out of the 50 states in bank profitability, still requires that an ATM be located on the premises of a bank.

So before the Shawmut could locate an ATM in a nearby Digital Equipment Corporation plant, for example, it had to apply for a branch at that location. A bill now before the legislature, says Mr. LaWare, may change that within the next few weeks, opening the way to a proliferation of ATM sites.

AT this point, the ATMs are hardly ready to take over all the typical branches -- largely because business accounts, sometimes needing large amounts of coin or bringing numerous checks for deposit, are not yet part of the system.

But holders of personal accounts, it appears, can get ready for the change. "Look around you," says Mrs. Condon, gesturing enthusiastically around the living room sized office. "It's going to be lik e this."

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