Banks Return to Roots by Adding Branches

A few years ago Bank One inaugurated what it thought would be state-of-the-art banking. It was called Wingspan and it was basically an online, person-less way of doing your finances.

At the same time it was closing bank branches and even charged customers a fee if they sought advice from a real person.

Bank One thought at the time that it had married technology and banking to the 21st century.

It was wrong.

"Most retailers are saying, 'How do I get you into my store?' " said Bank One's Michael Cleary. "We were saying, 'Please don't come into our store.' "

Wingspan disappeared and Bank One is now taking several steps back to the future.

"I think people feel a lot better about seeing the whites of someone's eyes when we're holding their money," concedes Cleary.

Budding Branches

Now Bank One is planning to open 65 new branches this year and maybe as many as 120 next year. Plus, it is spending $50 million to "retrofit" existing branches.

"People have shown us that they really want branches, so we should build new branches," Cleary says.

Bank One is hardly alone in this conclusion. Indeed, it is somewhat behind the trend toward more personal banking.

Commerce Bank, which has a host of "stores" in the New York City and Philadelphia areas, has tripled its branches — and its assets — in five years. "We've always tried to build a very unique model that's built on service," says Commerce Chairman Vernon Hill.

"We're inspired by the great retailers of America, no matter what they sell," he says.

Hill says banks can be marketed almost like fast-food restaurants and should be located with a similar desire to serve the public.

"It's a little bit of science," he says about locating his branches, "a little bit of gut [instinct] and it's a little bit of luck."

The other day Commerce opened its newest branch in New York City and it was almost as if the circus had come to town. There was music, games for the kids, balloons, free food — all of it for a bank.

Inspired by Starbucks?

Washington Mutual is rapidly expanding too, with 250 new branches this year alone.

In many of the branches, designed by the same people who brought you Starbucks coffeehouses, you will find play areas for children, coffee machines, and televisions and computers announcing the latest news.

Customers who don't want to stand in line are given pagers so they know when to return. And most business is done face to face with a personal financial representative. And there are no bars or glass partitions separating tellers from customers.

"We're ramping up," says Washington Mutual Vice President Mike Amato.

Some of this concentration on the retail side of banking has been forced upon bankers. Commercial banking has been in a slowdown for months. The flat economy hasn't helped either. So bankers had to look elsewhere to make up lost revenue. They found it across the counter.

"When people are holding tight to their money, that's exactly the time when they need a different approach to banking," says Amato. "They want to feel a much tighter partnership with their banker."

Today they have it.