Largest US banks lag in online usage rates

A new report from Credit Suisse First Boston Corporation says that the rate at which Americans use online banking is accelerating. However, it’s not the largest banks that are leading the charge.

Two regional banks – Wachovia Corp., based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Cincinnati-based Provident Financial Group Inc. – have penetration rates of 21 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

Today, 80 per cent of the top 100 banks in the US offer online banking, says report author James Marks. In addition, several banks that do not currently offer online banking say they will do so this year. Of the banks that do offer online banking, the average use rate is 10 per cent. And of customers using online banking, only 22 per cent sign up for electronic bill payment.

The report also claims that some banks are not adequately marketing their online products to customers.

By comparison, the top-ranking banks use low-cost, in-branch marketing such as displays, brochures and employee incentives to enroll customers. Wachovia, for example, invites customers to fill out online banking applications while waiting for a teller to finish helping them.

One problem with online banking, says Marks, is that it costs the banks more money than it brings in, and as a result they are not likely to promote it. In addition, says Lawrence Baxter, Wachovia’s head of e business, customers may not always ask for these services.

“Our whole Internet thrust has always been somewhat ahead of customer demand,” he said.

Most recently, Wachovia became one of a handful of US banks to announce that it will be make wireless banking available to its customers. Another service that may soon start driving more customers to online banking is online bill presentment, which is not available from many billers says Linda Alt, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.

Today, a customer receives a bill in the mail from, say, a utility company, then goes to his bank’s Web site, selects the utility company from a list of payees, and types in a dollar amount. With online bill presentment, the customer won’t have to go to the mailbox – an electronic version of the bill will be available online for immediate payment.

“That’s something that’s going to encourage more Internet banking,” Alt said.

Finally, word of mouth is a potent force: As more customers sign up, they tell more friends and relatives.