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Fleeing to Fee-Free ATMs

There's only one reason why Erin Fishel uses the ATM at the Dairy Mart across the street from where she lives: It's free.

"I won't use it unless it's my bank or no fees are involved," the 21-year-old said of automated teller machines.

Dairy Mart Convenience Stores Inc. is betting that Fishel and other customers won't take their money and run, but instead spend it on a quart of milk, a 12-pack of soda or a lottery ticket.

"It's a little different and risky, but we feel long range that it will bring people into the store," said Betty Yopko, spokeswoman for the chain based in Hudson in northeast Ohio.

"We know there is a lot of the industry watching to see whether we fall on our face or not."

Dairy Mart completed installation of the ATMs in May at its 620 stores in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee. While Dairy Mart doesn't charge for using the ATM, customers may be charged by their bank.

It is part of an overall plan that includes selling gasoline and fast food from restaurants such as Taco Bell and Mr. Hero to increase sales.

It's too early to say whether the ATMs are working.

"Right now, we are seeing high usage of the machines. Whether or not those customers are buying things in the stores, time will tell," Yopko said. "We're measuring that as we go."

The ATMs are typically located inside the front door near racks of magazines, soda pop and candy bars.

Yopko won't disclose how much money Dairy Mart has invested in the effort or the campaign of billboards, television advertising and other promotions to advertise the ATMs, which also dispense coupons with the receipt.

Mark Hoppe, president of Efmark Service Co. of Westmont, Ill., wouldn't say how much the company is getting for providing and servicing the ATMs for Dairy Mart, but said a typical bank ATM costs about $1,000 a month.

The cost of providing ATMs can vary considerably, depending on the deal reached between the company providing the ATM and the company where the ATM is located, said Ann All, editor of the online in Louisville, Ky.

"In no instance is it going to be cheap," she said.

ATMs have become commonplace in stores, hotels and restaurants, but most charge a fee, generally $1.50, if users aren't customers. Many users also are charged a second fee by their bank, typically about $1, All said.

Dairy Mart may be on to something, because there is research that shows people spend more in stores with ATMs, she said.

"It's like a bold move for them. It's either going to be a good thing or it's going to be horrible," she said.

The move comes at a time when consumers are increasingly conscious of ATM fees. Use of the nation's 200,000 ATMs has been flattening or, in some areas, going down, due at least in part to fees, All said.

Fee-free ATMs are unusual, but not unprecedented.

Wawa Food Markts, a Wawa, Pa.-based chain of about 500 convenience stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, has offered its customers fee-free ATMs since 1995.

"They love the fact there is no surcharge," spokeswoman Lori Bruce said.

The program is not Dairy Mart's first try at increasing revenue through ATMs.

The company had an agreement with Bank One to provide 500 rapid cash machines at stores, but they were pulled last year because they weren't used enough, according to Dairy Mart's financial records. Those ATMs charged a fee.

Early use of the new machines has been strong, about three times that of the old ATMs, Hoppe said.

The ATM at a Dairy Mart on the city's north side was so heavily used it ran out of money several times at first, store manager Sarah McHenry said. Its use ranked among the top five in the chain with 2,800 transactions in June.

"It has increased sales," she said, without divulging figures. But, there also are customers who use the ATM and don't buy anything, McHenry said.

"I wouldn't have stopped here if they didn't have a no-fee ATM," said customer Scott Davis, 33, of Columbus. "I want to save money."

By Mark Williams

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