While many aspects of the credit union business have changed since 1990, few have changed more than the placement, use and role of ATMs.
Since 1990, the lowly ATM has moved from being little more than an adjunct to a credit union or bank's branch structure to being a significant part of customer service strategy and the average retail landscape today, industry executives said.
"In 1990, ATMs were like extensions of bank [or credit union] branches so most ATMs were located at, or close, to branches," explained Michael Lee, CEO of the ATM Industry Association, an international organization that represents ATM manufacturers and deployers. There were only about 85,000 to 150,000 machines in those days, and they were virtually all tied to bank or credit union branches.
On a per machine basis, ATMs had a significantly higher number of uses per month back then. The average monthly transactions per ATM was 6,399 in 1996 compared to 3,105 in 2008, and the average ATM user was a bank customer, Lee said. A 1991 study of ATM use indicated that 86% of ATM transactions were cash withdrawals, 10% were deposits and the rest were account transfers and bill payment, he added.
The machines' apparent hostility to deposits could explain why users made so few of them, said Robert Tramontano, vice president of marketing for the NCR Corp., a leading ATM manufacturer.
"The ATMs in 1990 were really just cash-dispensing machines that were very closely attached to a bank or credit union branch," explained Tramontano. "And imagine, if you did want to make a deposit, you would make your deposit with the envelope and then face a black or green screen that would say something like 'your deposit will be subject to visual verification' and post only after that. Is it any wonder that few people wanted to make deposits through ATMs?"
Things might have continued on this track for years had it not been for the advent of ATM surcharges, Lee said. Although unpopular with consumer groups, these surcharges nonetheless made it possible for ATMs to vastly enlarge their role in the American economy.
"The big revolution in the U.S. ATM in this time period was the introduction of surcharging in 1996," Lee said. The surcharge fee paid by consumers using an ATM not belonging to their bank increased from zero in 1996 to an average of roughly $1.50 in 2003, he added, citing the Federal Reserve. "The fee allowed ATM owners to take ATMs to nonbank areas in the retail sector, closer to where consumers live, work and shop. The fee provided the economic stimulus for the huge growth of the retail ATM."
But ATMs' arrival in retail venues was not automatic once surcharging came in. ATM manufacturer Triton Systems, a subsidiary of the Dove Corp., made its mark in 1994 by selling simple ATMs that only dispensed cash to retailers and independent service organizations that wanted to deploy them in retail locations. Prior to that, the company had been offering a machine that printed a voucher or scrip that the consumer could use as cash with the retailer.
"Triton was manufacturing our ATMjr product line which was an ATM demonstrator sold to banks that were used by the financial institutions to educate their card holders on the use of an ATM," said James Phillips, Triton's director of North American sales. "We also deployed scrip terminals which were essentially an ATM without a cash dispenser. These devices would deploy a receipt or scrip that could then be taken to the cashier and exchanged for cash. Triton, and a company called Tidel, were the first manufacturers of low end cash dispensing ATMs. We both deployed the first examples in 1994. At that time, a low end cash dispenser sold to a retail merchant location for approximately $10,000."
The number of ATM networks for credit unions to choose from has dropped precipitously since 1991. Credit Union 24 and CO-OP Financial Services' CO-OP Network are well known to most credit union executives because they are among the last credit union-owned networks to remain after the waves of consolidations and mergers over the past two decades.
In the end, Lee and the other industry executives credited the ATM with having substantially changed American economic and social life. Over the last 20 years ATMs have gone from being little more than another banking channel to being an essential element in Americans' financial lives, Lee said.