A trade publication commenting on the recent spread of automatic teller machine networks in the Washington area described the flurry of activity by financial institutions here as "point-of-sale fever."
True, point-of-sale, or POS, systems are not yet operating in metropolitan Washington, although some people, mostly retailers, use the term to describe a new generation of sophisticated cash registers.
On the other hand, financial institutions are investing heavily in hundreds of remote teller machines that perform limited banking functions. And they emphasize that those machines are forerunners of the next phase in electronic banking.
A major consideration for financial institutions is how they should prepare consumers for the transition to the more sophisticated aspects of electronic banking.
Before we reach that point, however, questions being raised by some consumers suggest they are not very well-informed about certain aspects of ATM networks, such as pricing of services.
Some Washington-area bank customers are discovering that they will have to pay for the convenience of being able to withdraw cash from certain remote teller machines.
Although three shared-ATM networks have been organized in the region since late last year, only one is operational, but limited. Four banks in the Network Exchange system are on-line, enabling customers to withdraw cash or make balance inquries at shared-ATMs in the system.
There is no charge to a customer if he uses his bank's ATM. However, if that same customer withdraws cash or makes a balance inquiry at a participating bank's ATM, he will be charged a fee for each transaction.
The fees are necessary, bank officials explain, to cover operating costs of participating banks and the electronic switching systems that support the ATM networks.
As an example, a Suburban Bank customer is charged 50 cents for making a cash withdrawal at an ATM of another bank in the same consortium, Network Exchange. The customer would be charged 35 cents if he makes an inquiry about his account balance at the same machine.
Suburban doesn't make a profit on either transaction, a spokeswoman explained. Most of the fee is paid to the other bank for handling the transaction and lesser amounts are paid to Network Exchange and the Maryland Switch.
"A lot of banks are taking a look at how they will charge for these transactions," said one bank executive. "Everybody is starting to take a look at what it costs to operate these machines.
"We pay interest on so many things, we're going to have to start living off fees," he said.
Although the fees have drawn some criticism, banking officials here say the amounts are really small for the convenience customers realize from using the machines. What's more, the fee system will be a way of life once national ATM networks are in place, they point out.
In any event, financial institutions and retailers will have to prepare consumers for the advent of POS, says Terry Eikenbery, senior vice president and manager of the future banking division at Suburban.
The technology is in place for POS systems in which payments for retail purchases are made electronically from customer demand accounts at financial institutions. That could be done through a central electronic switching system connecting retailers and financial institutions.
"We think that after the shared ATMs are in place, we've got the capability to do debit cards," Eikenbery said referring to POS activities. "That's something we want to start as soon as possible but that's got to be a cooperative effort between retailers and financial institutions."
Already, at least three major area retailers -- Woodward & Lothrop Inc., Raleigh's and Hechinger Co. -- are tied into the Maryland Switch, which is owned by Suburban Bank of Bethesda, First National Bank of Maryland, Savings Bank of Baltimore and First Virginia Banks.
The next stage, Eikenbery said, is to develop the point-of-sale capability fully so that debit card transactions can be made at POS terminals in retail outlets.
All three ATM networks are discussing that phase with retailers in the area, but no agreements have yet been signed.