RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And to save on costs and compete for a younger generation of customers, banks are finding new uses for the old ATM. They're making them gateways to actual human bank tellers over a phone connection. You know, say your wallet is stolen, but you still need to get money from an ATM; or you want very exact change. New ATMs will let you talk to tellers at call centers, who can handle your specific request.
Ben Bradford, from member station WFAE, reports.
BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: There's a drive-thru ATM here in Charlotte, N.C., that looks pretty standard, but it's got an extra function. I push a button that says "Speak with Teller."
CAROLINA: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, welcome to Bank of America. My name is Carolina, how are you today?
BRADFORD: The face of a woman wearing a headset sitting in front of a plain, blue background flashes onto the ATM screen. She's one of a cadre of Bank of America employees in Florida and Delaware call centers, where they remotely control ATMs across the country. I ask for $26.
Just a 1, a 5, and a 20.
CAROLINA: OK, you want one, 5; you want one, 20; and I'm going to give you one, 1.
BRADFORD: All the details of my transaction pop up on the screen. I press confirm...
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
CAROLINA: ...the machine spits out my new bills; I thank Carolina, and drive off.
BRADFORD: Bank of America started rolling out these virtual tellers in Charlotte, New York, Boston, and a few other cities earlier this year, and plans to expand further. Meanwhile, PNC Bank and Chase have been introducing their own ATMs of the future, which dispense singles and 5s. Citi's got ones that let customers open accounts and pay bills. Analyst Nancy Bush says banks ultimately see the ATMs as money-savers.
NANCY BUSH: There is a very large need for banks to continue to control their costs and, of course, branches, branch personnel, etc., are one of the bank's largest costs.
BRADFORD: The more services the ATMs can do, the less banks have to spend on tellers and branches - which are expensive but seeing less traffic than they have in decades, as mobile and online banking have taken off. The firm SNL Financial reports about 3 percent of U.S. bank branches have closed in just the past four years. Instead of spending on real estate and staffing, banks can install street-corner ATMs, and pay fewer employees to video chat - or none at all. But that leaves one problem, Bush says.
BUSH: They want you to be able to access services through technology, but they still see the branch as their biggest revenue generator.
BRADFORD: Banks want to get you into the branch, so they can sell you more products. Bank of America calls it the stairstep. CEO Brian Moynihan explained it to investors this month at a conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRIAN MOYNIHAN: We're working from a checking account to a core checking account, to a credit card into an auto loan and ultimately, to a mortgage loan, and then to investment. Now, this happens, literally, thousands of times a day.
BRADFORD: So banks are launching the hybrid branch, like this Chase branch next to Grand Central in Manhattan.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, how you doing?
CAROLINA: There's a lot of open space and no tellers. Instead, customers use Chase's ATMs of the future, in kiosks along the walls.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)
CAROLINA: In the center of the room, there's an equivalent to Apple's Genius Bar - for the things the ATMs can't do, branch manager Jennifer Deluca says.
JENNIFER DELUCA: New debit card, change of address, change of PIN, anything that we can do kind of quick transactions - it's midtown Manhattan - instead of taking you over to a desk and kind of going through all of it, we can get you in and out as fast as you'd like.
BRADFORD: But upstairs, there's still a traditional bank, with loan officers and financial advisers at desks. And while this branch is huge, removing tellers means Chase can move into spaces as small as a coffee shop. Bank of America and Wells Fargo opened their own, similar hybrid branches earlier this year in New York and Washington, D.C.
Some employees see the new ATMs and branches as a threat; another wave of machines replacing humans. Bank of America tellers recently picketed the new machines in Manhattan. Banking executives respond that the traditional branch isn't going away completely; the new technology is just a complement. And, that's because, they say, many people still prefer to bank with a real person instead of a video screen.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford.