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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Even as big banks beef up their digital offerings such as smartphone apps, they are overhauling an older, bulkier piece of technology: the automated teller machine.

In recent months, banks with a presence in Charlotte have unveiled plans for fancier ATMs at a time when they have also been trimming expenses and closing branches.

Charlotte-based Bank of America s new ATMs will allow real-time access, via video, to tellers during extended hours, in a feature it is calling Teller Assist.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group is upgrading its ATMs so that they can dispense $1 bills.

And Wells Fargo is redesigning its ATM screen to personalize the layout with one-touch favorites buttons based on what a customer does most, such as withdrawing $60.

According to industry officials, big banks ATMs can cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece per year to maintain. But in spite of those costs, and the migration of customers to online and mobile banking, banks still view ATMs as a necessary expense, industry observers and bankers say.

I think there is an arms race to provide superior services to customers, said Ed O Brien, a director for Maynard, Mass.-based Mercator Advisory Group.

In a report released in March, O Brien wrote that, particularly in the U.S., banks and other financial institutions are looking for ways to replace lost revenues and increase overall efficiencies, and they are rediscovering ATMs as an efficient and valuable channel in a forward-looking business strategy.

Within the past three months, there s been a wave of announcements about ATM changes coming to Charlotte. The changes to the machines are varying by company, as the banks place their bets on different ATM bells and whistles. Bank executives say the changes they re making to their ATMs are in response to what customers have told them they want.

Shirley Edmond, Charlotte-area manager for PNC, said some of the bank s clients want to be able to withdraw less than $20 from an ATM.

If our customers are asking for that, then we re going to make that available for them, she said. The bank s new ATMs, among other changes, will allow customers to feed a deposit of up to 50 bills into the machines with no need for an envelope.

Bank of America s Teller Assist ATMs are expected to debut in Charlotte in late summer or early fall, at Founders Hall in uptown. ATMs with the new feature will allow customers to interact with a teller after hours.

Wells Fargo announced its latest ATM tweak in February and said it expects the new layout to be on all of its 12,000-plus ATMs by May.

The entire layout is personalized, based on what you do most at the ATM, says a video about the new interface.

Alicia Moore, head of ATM banking for Wells, said the bank s customers want to be swift like a ninja at the ATM. Wells customers, she said, also want their ATMs to know them.

Even as many banks try to cut overhead in an era of tougher, costlier government regulations, they are pouring more money into ATMs although that hasn t always meant more machines.

Over the past four years, Wells Fargo has reduced its U.S. branches from about 10,000 to 9,000. Its number of ATMs has stayed the same at 12,000 during that time.

Over the same period, Bank of America cut the number of branches from 6,000 to 5,500 and reduced ATMs from 18,000 to 16,300. PNC plans to close 200 branches across the U.S. One of those is in Charlotte, on Westinghouse Boulevard.

In some cases, banks have closed branches only to open an ATM nearby. In September, Bank of America closed a branch on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Across the street, it has opened a site that houses just an ATM.

The reality is there will be fewer branches in some cases, O Brien said.

There s been a constant effort to improve customer convenience, and one way to do that is through ATMs, said Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association. For that reason they are upgrading, they are spending more on them.

I think we are seeing ATMs as a means of extending bank hours. That goes to customer convenience.

Katy Knox, retail banking executive for Bank of America, said the bank is rolling out any new technology to give customers choice and allow them to bank on their schedule.

Feddis estimates that large banks spend as much as $70,000 per year to maintain each of their ATMs. Costs can include insurance, hardware and software, and if the ATM is not on bank property rent.

As banks vie for market share, O Brien expects they will pay close attention to each other s ATM innovations.

Everybody s watching everybody else, he said. After the financial crisis ... everyone s looking to replace revenues.

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