Exchange Bank's upgraded Windsor branch: The future of banking?
For years, the design of the local bank branch has had the retail friendliness of a Soviet-era shop with its rows of bulletproof windows and roped lines to usher transactions through in the most efficient manner.
If a teller wanted to have a face-to-face conversation - without glass in between - he or she would have to go through security doors akin to the opening credits of “Get Smart.” A private conversation would be like a trip to the principal’s office.
Santa Rosa-based Exchange Bank aims to change that with its branch in Windsor.
“We have been banking for so long ?we don’t even realize how uninviting it is,” conceded Beth Ryan, Exchange Bank’s vice president for retail banking.
The Windsor branch is more like the Apple Store than the old-fashioned Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan Association of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Once you enter, you are greeted by a “universal banker” who can help you with an array of banking services from making a deposit to solving problems with your mobile banking application or opening a credit card. The goal is not to hand the customer from one employee to another for different transactions.
It also features community banking tables, a lounge area, free Wi-Fi, a touchscreen kiosk, a deposit image ATM, and a beverage brewing station with gourmet blend coffee. A kids’ table with electronic tablets is on one side, a relief to working moms. At the rear, an outside patio with wooden benches offers a comfortable and relaxing area to sit and have a conversation - not an interaction - with one of the branch’s nine employees.
Most notable is the “cash bar,” which replaces the teller window and the glass barrier. The 8-foot-long, circular standing desk gets rid of the glass, thanks to a vaulted cash recycler machine that replaces the old cash drawer. One customer recently was able to sidle up next to the banker as he filled out on the computer screen an application for a new debit card, allowing her to better understand the process.
“For the most part customers love it. They love the feeling of us being able to roam free, for them not having a barrier of the teller line. They can access their banker,” said Jamie Koop, customer service manager at the branch.
While the branch overhaul is key to maintaining good customer services, it’s also crucial for independent community banks to survive in a digital banking era where the big four retail banks - Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., JP Morgan Chase Co. and Citigroup - have an outsized market share given their economies of scale.
Though the United States continues to support far more banks than other countries, the number of commercial banks is dropping. At the end of the second quarter, there were ?5,693 banks operating in the U.S., down from 14,400 in 1994, according to research by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.
At the same time, the big four banks are increasing their market share. They had approximately 39 percent of the overall nationwide deposits at the end of 2012, outperforming the rest of the industry in deposit share growth, according to a report last year from McKinsey & Co.
The fear among community banks is that the trend will be exacerbated as they meet more expensive compliance standards under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and as bigger banks, with ample financial resources, fully develop their digital offerings to those of a millennial generation who may never set foot into a branch after he or she sets up an account.
“In 10 to 20 years, we will be more like Canada and Japan,” said Anthony Plath, an associate professor of finance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Plath applauded the move by Exchange Bank, but he noted that for most community banks such merchandising changes would “be like giving a tetanus shot to a dinosaur” because of the industry trends.
Not all agree with such dire predictions. “I think we will see consolidation. I don’t think it will be as acute as some believe,” said Steven Reider, founder of Bancography, a Birmingham, Ala., bank consultant practice that has worked with Exchange Bank.
The advantage that Exchange Bank and others may have is their strong community ties, which can be leveraged to build a tight relationship with their customers so they will turn first to their banker for financial advice. The cozier bank branch is one piece of that strategy. “The community bank excels in trying to deliver that type of personal service,” Reider said.
Founded in 1890, Exchange Bank is in good position as it has 18 branch locations in Sonoma County, according to 2103 FDIC data, the most of any retail bank in Sonoma County. Its deposits totaled $1.6 billion at the end of the second quarter, an increase of $90 million, about 6 percent, from a year ago.