Banks giving ATMs the ax?

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Used to finding a Bank of America ATM whenever you need one? Don’t look now, but that could be changing.

This year, Bank of America has cut a record 1,536 ATMs, or about 9 percent of its total stock, write Hugh Son and Zachary Tracer of Bloomberg:

Bank of America chose to pull most of its ATMs at malls and gas stations in part because those devices only dispensed cash and weren’t available 24 hours a day, (Bank of America spokeswoman Anne) Pace said in an interview. Customers want to be able to deposit checks at an ATM, she said.

“It’s about convenience and access, that’s what the customers are looking for,” Pace said. “People aren’t banking 9 to 5, they are banking when it’s convenient for them.”

It costs banks an average of $1,700 per month to run an ATM on someone else’s property, compared with $1,100 at a branch, said Tony Hayes, a partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman in Boston. The difference stems from rental costs and fees for armored couriers to refill machines with cash, he said.

But is BofA’s move an isolated event, or a sign that large banks are starting to abandon ATMs? Ann Carns of The New York Times Bucks Blog writes that it’s more likely the former:

Other big banks say they have no plans to shrink their networks. JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank by assets, said it planned to expand its system. A Chase spokesman said in an email that the bank had more than 17,500 ATMs, “and that number will grow as we continue to build branches.”

Citigroup has 10,428 Citi-branded ATMs, a spokeswoman said, including more than 6,000 machines at 7-Eleven stores, and has no plans to reduce those numbers.

Wells Fargo says it has about 12,000 ATMs since its merger with Wachovia, and has no plans for any changes.

U.S. Bancorp has 5,085 machines and has no plans to pull back on its network, a spokeswoman said.

Like Carns, though, I wonder about the long-term trend. Notwithstanding the old cliché, “cash is king,” cash has grown increasingly rare as electronic payment methods like credit and debit become more ubiquitous.

I think as technologies like smartphone-based remote deposit capture and person-to-person payments become easier to use and more widely adopted, there will be fewer and fewer reasons to seek out an ATM, in the same way that the rise of cellphones has killed off the payphone. After all, if you have a device in your pocket that can perform many of the functions of an ATM, why go out of your way?

But in the meantime, having an extensive ATM network customers can use without paying an annoying fee is one of the major ways large banks differentiate themselves from community banks and credit unions, and so they’ll continue to invest in them for the time being.

What do you think? Is a big network of ATMs important to you? Are ATMs on their way out, or will people always want easy access to cash?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell