Banks Are Reducing Branch Networks…But Remain Committed to Human Channels

In reporting their quarterly and annual financials, leading U.S. banks reported continued declines in their branch networks.

These declines are driven by banks’ need to cut costs, as well as reflecting the significant shift to digital channels by consumers and businesses for their everyday banking needs.  However, There is plenty of evidence that banks remain fully committed to their human channels, especially the branch channel.

  • JPMorgan Chase announced last week that it plans to open up to 400 branches in the next five years in new markets.
  • At its 2017 Investor Day, Citigroup discussed its retail banking campaign in Manhattan, which featured three new Citigold Centers as well as the addition of 70+ relationship managers and financial advisors.  This campaign led to a 16% rise in checking deposits, 18% growth in assets under management, and 35% increase in personal and home equity loans.
  • Wells Fargo has a branch presence in more than 460 markets, which it considers to be a competitive advantage over national banking competitors such as Chase and Bank of America, both of whom are in less than 250 markets.  Wells Fargo also highlights that it is in the 15 fastest-growing U.S. markets.
  • Fifth Third presented its “bricks and clicks” approach at its Investor Day, which articulated the roles of both digital and branch channels as well as the importance of integrating these channels.

Why do banks remain committed to human channels?

  • While digital channels are effective for day-to-day banking needs, bank clients tend to prefer human channels for their more personal and complex banking needs.
  • With the switch to digital channels for everyday banking, banks no longer need highly-dense networks in order to establish or maintain a physical presence in new markets.
  • Reflecting their changing role, branches are increasingly staffed with specialists (e.g., mortgage bankers, small business bankers, investment bankers) who increase branch effectiveness as a sales channel.
  • Maintaining a branch presence in a market is key to raising and maintaining brand awareness and affinity.

Banks need to invest in both human and digital channels, in order to reflect customer needs, preferences and behaviors.  A truly integrated channel strategy and structure, which is built around the customer journey, and which reflects the unique attributes of both human and digital channels, is vital for banks to optimize returns on their channel investment.

Banks’ Branch Strategies Must Involve More Than Just Closing Branches

According to the FDIC, U.S. banks have been cutting branches steadily in recent years.  Offices in FDIC-insured institutions reached a high of 99,500 at the end of 2Q09, but have declined by almost 8% since then, to less than 92,000.

offices_in_FDIC_institutions_2Q07-2Q16

Bank branch reductions are primarily driven by two factors: cutting costs in a low-revenue-growth environment; and the belief that customers’ increase use of electronic channels for everyday banking needs means that banks need fewer branches.  According to the American Bankers Association, 73% of U.S. adults identified the Internet and mobile as their preferred banking methods, with only 14% naming branches. However, customers remain committed to branches.  According to a March 2016 Accenture survey, 87% of North American banking customers expect to still use bank branches two years in the future.  A branch strategy that simply consists of branch cuts fails to take into account customers’ ongoing branch affinity, as well as ignores the significant role that branches can play in helping banks meet sales and service goals. Here are four strategies that banks can follow to optimize their branch investments:

  • Create specialist branches.  Some banks are opening offices to target specific segments, such as commercial clients or high-net-worth individuals.  For example, BMO Harris opened a commercial banking office in Dallas in June 2016, while Wells Fargo opened a Middle Market Banking office in Albany in August 2016.  These branches are located, designed and staffed to cater to the characteristics and unique financial needs of these segments.  Unlike traditional branches that tend to form part of a network, these specialists branches can operate on a standalone basis, thereby ensuring that costs stay under control.
  • Use branches to promote digital services.  Recognizing the transition to electronic channels for everyday banking transactions, banks can leverage their branch network to demonstrate the ease-of-use and value of these digital services to customers who are slow to embrace technology, while also showcasing innovations to early adopters of new technologies.  Bank of America has deployed 3,800 ‘digital ambassadors’ in its branches who help customers understand and use its online and mobile banking services.
  • Overhaul branch staffing.  Smaller branches require fewer personnel, but the staff must be comfortable with performing a range of service and sales activities.  Embracing this model, PNC plans that half of its branches will have converted to ‘universal branches’ by 2020 (18% have done so to date)
  • Scale down the overall branch footprint. As they seek to reduce branch costs, banks need to take into account the benefits of having a physical presence in markets.  This can involve using smaller branch formats (one extreme example is PNC’s portable 160-foot  “Tiny Branch” on the West Virginia University’s Morganstown campus), reducing branch density, replacing a series of existing branches with one big flagship store, or even opening new branches in high-growth/high-potential markets.  Decisions on the number, location and format of branches should be based on analyzing a number of key factors, including: competitive intensity; market size, growth and composition; current branch usage; short-term costs; and longer-term savings.

Four Channel Trends in Leading Bank 4Q15 Financials

The largest U.S. banks have been publishing their quarterly and full-year financials over the past two weeks.  Within these reports, we can discern a number of channel-related trends.  These trends have a direct impact on how banks interact with their customer base in terms of providing everyday banking and value-added services as well as cross-selling additional products and services.

We’ve listed these key channel trends below:

  • Banks are continuing to reduce their branch networks.  According to SNL Financial, the total U.S. branch network fell by 1,614 branches and is now at 92,997, a decline of 1.7%.  These declines are driven by banks’ desire to cut costs, as well as from a recognition that greater usage of self-service channels for everyday banking transactions may enable banks to reduce bank density.  The following chart looks at net changes in branch numbers for leading banks with more than 500 branches:

net_change_in_branch_numbers_4Q14-4Q15

Citibank reported that it plans to close an additional 50 branches in the first quarter of 2016 as it exits certain markets (including Boston) and will concentrate its branch presence in six key metro markets.  It is worth noting that in other markets where Citibank has cut its branch presence, it claims to have retained over 50% of deposits through its online and mobile channels.

  • Banks are overhauling branch design and staffing.  Not only are banks reducing their overall branch numbers, they are changing how branches are designed and staffed.   In its 4Q15 earnings conference call, SunTrust mentioned that it is relocating to new, smaller branch locations in Richmond and Raleigh, which will reduce its square footage in these markets by half.  Overall, it has reduced its branch footprint by 2.5 million square feet over the past four years.  PNC reported that 375 of its 2,600 branches have been converted to its Universal Banker model, and it plans to convert an additional 100 branches in 2016.
  • Mobile banking is maintaining its strong growth trajectory.  According to Javelin Strategy & Research, 30% of U.S. adults used a mobile banking service weekly in 2015.  Reflecting this trend, leading banks continue to show double-digit y/y growth in mobile banking users (Chase +20% to 22.8 million; Bank of America +13% to 18.7 million; and Wells Fargo +15% to 16.2 million).  These customers are also using mobile banking for a greater variety of transactions.  For example, Bank of America reported that mobile banking’s share of total deposit transactions rose steadily from 4% in 4Q12 to 15% in 4Q15.
  • Online banking usage remains strong…and is growing.  While mobile banking garners most of the headline in financial trade press, online banking remains a key customer service channel, and some leading banks continue to register strong growth rates in online banking users.  This is likely due to a number of factors, including overall account growth, increased customer comfort with using online banking, new online banking functionality, as well as lingering concerns over mobile banking security.  The following table compares 2015 online and mobile banking users and growth rates for Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo:

online_mobile_banking_comparison

We expect that as banks continue their migration towards self-service channels for a growing number of everyday banking transactions, banks will continue to scale back their branch networks.  This will involve reducing branch density in particular markets, as well as exiting markets where they lack a critical mass or where their branches are underperforming.  However, banks in general want to maintain a physical presence in markets, so they can leverage the power of the branch as both a sales channel and a branding beacon.

In addition, banks need to provide a consistent user experience across their online and mobile channels.  In the short term, banks will continue to provide more functionality in the online channel, as consumers build trust in using their mobile devices for more complex financial transactions.  But the distinctions between online and mobile channels are blurring, and banks are already starting to refer to “digital channels” to encompass desktop, tablet and mobile channels.  Even the traditional delineations between “online” and “offline” channels are breaking down, as banks showcase their digital services in branches, and as digital channels include functions to enable customers make in-branch appointments.