It used to be a way to get customers in the door. Now it’s almost a requirement to make sure they don’t leave.

Free checking was a perk four or five years ago, but now almost all Connecticut banks offer some form of free checking to their customers and, despite a recent study that says that advertising free checking accounts brings relatively few people through the doors, bankers say offering the service is necessary to remain competitive.

“Everybody has one and it seems like a bank needs to have one,” said Susan Presutti, marketing coordinator at The Simsbury Bank in Simsbury.

Banks spend a lot of money advertising free checking programs so consumers are highly aware of the products, according to Synergistics Research, an Atlanta-based group that recently researched free checking. More than seven in 10 consumers said they had seen advertising for free checking, yet fewer than one-tenth have actually made an inquiry about free checking, according to the group. Fewer than one in 20 actually opened a free checking account as a result of the advertisements they had seen.

But that might be because a lot of people believe they already have free checking. Seven in 10 consumers involved in the research said they already have the free service, according to Synergistics.

But whether free checking itself is enough to get new customers through the door, it is a perk a bank needs to offer to stay competitive.

“It’s just now the way of the world,” said Alan Mandelbaum, senior vice president and director of retail product management at Waterbury-based Webster Bank.

Several years ago, however, the banks that had free checking were pioneers. Webster started its free checking account two-and-a-half years ago, in August 2002. It also started a free checking account for small businesses in March 2003, Mandelbaum said.

The bank was one of the first in the area to have free checking for consumers, and there was a good response from consumers, he said.

“We were ahead of the pack,” Mandelbaum said. “We more than doubled the number of accounts [since opening the free checking account].”

The Simsbury Bank has one of the newest free checking accounts in the state. After offering fee-waived accounts since the bank’s inception, executives decided that they needed a truly free account and started the program last spring, Presutti said. Although the bank’s other accounts have never cost its customers money, the fact that the bank could start charging fees again didn’t allow the bank to advertise the accounts as free.

“We felt we needed to be able to say ‘free checking,'” Presutti said.

When the bank opened 10 years ago, it waived fees as a strategy to get customers through the door, she said.

“We just never changed it,” Presutti said. “We always wanted to give people a free option.”

The bank eventually may start charging fees for its other accounts now that it has a separate, dedicated free checking account, according to Presutti, but has no immediate plans to start.

Perks and Requirements

Despite the prevalence of free checking accounts at other banks, The Simsbury Bank saw some success in attracting new customers after starting the account, Presutti said.

“It has been a very popular account,” she said. “People still gravitate toward free.”

The bank advertised the new account, which is called Sycamore Free Checking, in the spring, summer and fall. Many people reacted to it and came into the branches, Presutti said. Some customers who had already been banking with The Simsbury Bank switched to the account, she said. The account is very flexible, Presutti said, and has no special requirements to make it free. It also includes unlimited check writing, a free ATM and debit card and several other perks.

Those perks – and requirements that some banks impose to make the account free – are what differentiate banks these days, Mandelbaum said. Webster offers a free checking account that is similar to The Simsbury Bank’s account and does not require direct deposit or minimum balances, as some other banks do, he said.

“I don’t think too many banks can compete [with no-requirement free checking accounts],” Mandelbaum said.

But even banks that do have minimum-balance or direct-deposit requirements can find success with free checking. South Windsor-based Rockville Bank has been offering free checking with direct deposit for 12 years, said bank President and Chief Executive Officer William J. McGurk. The bank was among the first in its area to have free checking, but other banks caught up quickly, McGurk said. But when the bank first started free checking, a lot of customers switched to Rockville bank.

“It did well for us,” McGurk said.

Now banks without free checking are at a competitive disadvantage, he said. The bank recently did a survey of customers of local competitors and found that many customers assume a bank will have free checking.

“They expect to have free checking,” said Laurie Rosner, Rockville Bank’s senior vice president and marketing officer.

And although the bank’s free checking account has some requirements, it is still successful. The bank recently held a promotion where they offered a 10-month CD for people with checking accounts that were free because of direct deposit. The promotion worked well, but not as well as bank executives had hoped, according to McGurk.

“That worked out OK,” he said.

Even so, they continue to be pleased with the results of the free checking account.

“We’re happy with it,” McGurk said.

Their account requires either direct deposit or that the account holder be either a full-time student, age 50 or older, a member of the clergy or an active member of the military. The account also requires a minimum balance of $100.

Although Rockville Bank’s free checking accounts have those requirements, they are still competitive with other banks in the area, Rosner said. Few banks still have free checking for people over 50, and many require minimum balances of more than $500, she said.