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:
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:
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.
A number of recent surveys have shown that electronic channels – notably online and mobile banking – have taken over from branches as the primary customer service channels. This has led to some extreme speculation on the future of the branch channel. The industry consensus is that there will be a role for the branch channel in a future omnichannel banking environment, but there is a good deal of debate on what that role will be.
And banks’ role in everyday banking transaction processing diminishes, banks are starting to tap into the sales, marketing and customer support potential of the branch channel, in areas like:
- Customer acquisition: A Bancography 2012 survey found that 95% of new accounts are opened in the branch. And a recent Novarica survey found that 58% of people under 30 would not consider opening an account at a branch that does not have a branch nearby.
- Cross-sell: Some banks are already starting to overhaul both branch structures and staffing to reflect an expanded sales function. Bank of America recently discussed a redesign of its branches, which includes private rooms for meetings with financial specialists, as well as videoconferencing for remote access to experts. Banks should also be looking to upskill and support tellers to generate referrals for in-branch or remote specialists.
- Branding: The branch is the most physical manifestation of a bank’s brand. As such, branches should reflect and extend overall bank advertising efforts in signage, collateral, etc. In addition, advertising should promote branch strengths.
- Customer support: While electronic channels have advantages over branches in areas like convenience and 24-hour access, consumers continue to express a preference for branches for addressing financial needs that are more complex and/or personal in nature. A 2012 Cisco survey found that 84% of consumers are interested in a “specialty branch,” which would provide advice and personal, customized assistance. The most popular types of advice would be financial education, notary public services and tax preparation.
- Community relations: Branches are a tangible expression of a bank’s commitment to a specific market. Some banks are already redesigning branches to take on more of a community role. Umpqua Bank is a standout performer in this regard, with its cutting-edge branches including a “Discover Wall” that showcases neighborhood events, Local Spotlights on selected small businesses in the local area, as well as branch-specific Facebook pages.
- Research & Development: A number of large banks (such as Citibank, Bank of America and Umpqua) have opened “flagship” stores that showcase the bank’s latest sales and service technologies. In addition to creating local buzz for the bank as positioning it as a cutting-edge financial provider, these branches enable the testing of new products, services and technologies prior to wider deployment.
For banks to get the best return on their branch investment, they need to understand the changes in how consumers and businesses interact with their banks, develop a more holistic view of branch capabilities, and work to integrate branch-based activities with other bank marketing, sales and service initiatives.
The emergence of online and mobile banking has led to many financial industry commentators to question the sustainability of the branch channel. Recently-published data from three leading banks (Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo) indicates that online banking has achieved critical mass (with huge numbers of users, but low/no growth), while mobile banking is rapidly emerging as a key banking channel.
Does the emergence of online and mobile banking presage the end of branches? EMI’s analysis of the latest data on the top 15 branch networks indicates no significant evidence of banks dramatically scaling back their branch numbers.
- Of the top 15 branch networks, 7 grew between end-2011 and January 2013, while 8 declined.
- The largest growth in numbers came from PNC (due to its acquisition of RBC Bank in 2012), Chase and BB&T.
- The largest declines came from Bank of America, which has signalled its intent to cut its branch network by 10%; and RBS Citizens.
Bank executives reiterated their commitment to the branch channel in reporting their latest quarterly earnings. However, they also highlighted the need for changes to the branch channel in the context of changing customer channel usage and technological advances, as well as the ongoing need to control costs. Changes will probably involve some reductions in branch numbers, as banks eliminate underperforming individual branches and exit geographic markets where they feel they cannot gain critical mass. Of course, banks may also seek to grow their branch presence in targeted markets (as Chase is doing in Florida and California). In addition, bank need to make significant changes to branch design, staffing and operations, a topic that EMI discussed in a recent blog.