Home Banking, Take 2

Banks won't give up when it comes to delivering services to the home. Unable to cajole many customers into using personal computers to make banking transactions from their dens, the banks are now introducing screen phones for that same purpose. Citibank joined the fray on Nov. 9, teaming up with Ameritech to begin marketing a Philips Electronics model to Chicago customers next spring. Other institutions, including Maryland National, are already making screen phones available.

The new devices, which look like a cross between a standard desk phone and a portable computer, can be quite useful, enabling customers to do almost everything but get cash without going near a bank branch. What's more, screen phones have the potential to deliver a host of nonbanking conveniences, such as the ability to purchase theater tickets and peruse newspaper classified ads.

But some consumers will simply use screen phones for checking balances and other business they may be able to conduct for free on an automatic voice-response telephone line. Unless your bank is offering a lot of extra services you're confident you'll use, the extra equipment cost might not be worth it.

AT&T thought consumers might come to that conclusion when earlier this year it backed out of a venture with Columbus (Ohio)-based Huntington National Bank to develop a sophisticated screen telephone. The multifeatured phone would have cost nearly $500.

SHOPPER'S DELIGHT. The more recent launches are less expensive. Initially, consumers in and around Chicago will be able to rent the new Citibank units for under $10 per month or buy them for less than $200. Those phones are full of features, including caller identification, bill paying, and stock purchasing. Another new screen phone, from US Order, will cost slightly more, but in addition to allowing banking business, it will include a "swipe" slot for credit-card transactions with mail-order companies.

While many people don't mind using a regular phone for simple transactions, they have shown resistance to doing their banking through more versatile home computers. The latest devices offer the best of both worlds: the familiarity of the phone and the visual capabilities of a PC. Of course, at-home banking might have the best chance of succeeding if it could be conducted through another appliance whose usage comes as second nature to every customer: the TV set. Bankers say that day is not so far off.