My trip back to the UK was a useful reminder of the different services offered by banks to their customers, compared to the US. Some banks seem to be playing with their vast network of ATMs as a channel for selling services alongside simple cash withdrawals. Given that many UK banks do not charge for withdrawals from ATMs within their broader partner networks, this may be considered an important way of improving the returns from cash machines.
The most common service I noticed was the ability to buy 'mobile phone top-ups' (Natwest provides a decent flash demo of how it works). Given the penetration of mobile phones in the UK (greater than one subscription per capita), offering services to cell phone users may make sense. Prepaid phones make up a significant percentage of the total, and buying top-up credit is something that users do regularly, so making top-ups easily available and fast to buy makes sense to the mobile networks.
From a bank point of view, ATMs do not need to be physically modified to dispense credits - a back end integration is purely required to talk to the common mobile networks. Compare this with Bank of America that insists on offering me the useful, but barely utilized service where you can by stamps. This type of service carries a cost in keeping the 'stamp dispenser' filled and presumably needed the ATM to be modified to operate this.
ATMs are suited to providing services to customers who are 'out and about', rather than performing transactions that they could perform in the comfort of the own home in front of the PC. What other services do (or could) banks provide through their pervasive ATM channel? The University of Pennsylvania has some thoughts that don't seem to extend much beyond the obvious mini-statement and check cashing. I expect that we will continue to see big differences between the offerings in the US and Europe, where electronic / online payments, direct debits and prepaid mobiles are common and paper checks/cheques are less so.
As payment mechanisms converge across online, mobile phone, debit cards and contactless payments (see Bankwatch for many examples), the ATM and mobile phone are likely to become a central point of contact for buying services on the move. As I focus more on mobile technologies, expect some new blogs on this soon.