A lot has been written lately around the desire for banks to transform their branch networks given the consumer acceptance of alternative channels and the need to reduce distribution costs. In the past week, there has been coverage in both the American Banker as well as in BAI‘s Banking Strategies publication (see links to recent articles and white papers below).
One such report, published by the financial market research firm Fitch Ratings entitled, U.S. Banks: Rationalizing the Branch Network, expects that both fewer numbers of branches and different types of branches will be serving customers in the future. According to the report, the continuously increasing cost structure of banking, accompanied by a challenging revenue environment and higher capital requirements is prompting banks to evaluate all expense categories — especially their branch distribution system, which is one of the most significant expenses.
Past Branch Growth
For the past 30 years, branch growth continued unabated while the number of financial institutions declined by more than 50%. The growth occurred largely through consolidation and de-novo expansion, with the objective being to expand a bank’s footprint and customer base and therefore low cost deposits and loans.
Expanding a bank’s footprint was viewed by consumers as being synonymous with ‘strength’, and provided a bank the ability to market more cost efficiently. In the past, branches were also the primary form of distribution. The result was that markets with stronger economic activity became overbanked (similar to the growth of gas stations and car dealers in the past and drug stores today).
As shown below, while non-interest expense per branch continues to increase, non-interest costs continue to rise.
Changing Consumer Transaction Behaviors
As noted in my previous post, The Changing Definition of Convenience in Banking, a large percentage of consumers no longer equate branch distribution with convenience. While there are still some demographic segments who put a premium on the ability to transact at a local bricks and mortar facility (older demographics and small businesses), more and more consumers are banking from their desktop, ATM and mobile phone.
While many consumers still prefer to perform account opening and more involved financial transactions at a branch, the Fitch Ratings report references Fiserv’s 2011 Consumer Trends Survey that indicated that the vast majority of households with internet access (80% or 79M) use online banking, and that the growth rate of using this channel is increasing rapidly. The study also showed a substantial increase in the use of the mobile channel.
In short, changing consumer transacting behaviors combined with continued technological advances and the lower costs to the customer and bank associated with online and mobile banking, will continue to support a shift from traditional branches to digital channels.
Impact of Reducing Branch Networks
With the increased cost structure of branches, changing consumer transaction behaviors and potentially negative impact of simply closing branch offices, what might be the new banking distribution model? Fitch and Infosys both believe that technology, innovation and channel integration will play a major role in the transformation of bank distribution.
While new banking entities such as Simple and Movenbank can build a truly branchless bank, traditional financial organizations will need to find the right balance of branches and alternative channels to maintain a physical presence while still moving to a more feasible cost structure for the future. And while the announcements of branch closings are becoming more commonplace (BofA, KeyBank, PNC, HSBC, Capital One) to various degrees of controversy, the decision to close or modify a branch location will not be an easy one.
Digitally Enabled Branches
Some banks, like ABN AMRO have introduced a high tech teleportal that utilizes interactive technology without the presence of any staff. The branch can conduct the majority of the functions of a traditional branch through the interaction with a 3D screen that provides an effective, albeit different, branch experience.
Banks wanting to maintain a reduced staffing model without eliminating all direct human interaction have integrated digital and video technology to supplement a reduced staff in a smaller facility. Phone banking, self-service teller stations, online banking stations (using iPad style devices) and video web conferencing are being used in some banks for loan processing and even cross-selling.
With ATM capabilities expanding rapidly, some banks are increasing the presence and utilization of ATMs to handle more customer needs. We have already ATMs that can accept checks, make bill payments, provide change and even issue stamps and movie tickets. Future advances will include the potential for live video interaction and customer support and new ways to access cash utilizing mobile devices. These expanded capabilities will allow banks to reduce (or replace) a traditional bricks and mortar branch.
Enhanced Branch Value Proposition
For those branches that remain, banks must extract a higher value from the existing real estate through improved cross-selling, expanded services (brokerage, advisory, insurance, community outreach, etc.) and an overall enhanced customer experience. Citibank has gone as far as developing branches inspired from the Apple store, integrating modern design with technology and high customer service to improve engagement and sales (see Citi Rolls Out Its Version of the Apple Store in The Financial Brand).
With banks needing to reduce and reconfigure their distribution networks due to cost and revenue implications, disruption in bank distribution will continue. In an environment where customer fees have recently increased and dissatisfaction with the banking industry is still at high levels, any perceived cutback in service levels will be met with quick and widespread negative publicity and potential for further regulatory push back. This will leave banks with having to balance their need to change their distribution strategies with potential negative public sentiment.
It will eventually fall on the shoulders of bank marketers to soften the impact of any negative response through effective (and proactive) communication using all available traditional and digital/social media channels.
What do you think will be the best near and long term distribution strategy for banking? What will be the impact of the new banking entities that will enter the marketplace without branches? I would love to know.
Recent Related Articles on Bank Branch Transformation
Riding the Innovation Curve for Branch Transformation
Boiling the Frog: Time to Re-think Branches?
Branch Consolidations: Handle with Care
Bankers Talk Bluntly About Closing, Streamlining Branches
The Branch Killers Have It Backwards in Eyes of BB&Ts King
Bank Branches Are Dead
Recent Related White Papers
Infosys - Branch Bank of the Future: Transforming to Stay Relevant
Fitch Ratings – U.S. Banks: Rationalizing the Branch Network