WINDSOR -- Santa Rosa's Exchange Bank is preparing to recast its Windsor branch as a testing ground for the future of brick-and-mortar banking, optimizing the location for an era when advanced ATMs and Web services have encroached significantly on the role of the traditional bank branch, executives said.
Expected to be unveiled this summer, the revamped location will feature a layout that focuses on an emerging truth for the $1.7 billion community bank: while new technologies are increasingly utilized for routine banking activities, branches remain the preferred hub for one-on-one consultation on more complex services like mortgage lending, wealth management and opening new accounts, executives said.
"It doesn't matter if it's Sonoma County or elsewhere in the U.S. -- you'll see so many branches designed in the 50s, 60s, 70s, when people really had to go to the bank," said Howard Daulton, senior vice president in corporate and business development. Yet today, "the branch still remains crucial in the equation. It's where people want to go to open accounts, resolve issues and inquire about additional products."
Features of the so-called "branch of the future" concept will include an array of tablet computers that offer information about various bank services, as well as video conferencing equipment to connect customers with bank employees at other offices. The branch will also feature a state-of-the-art envelope-less ATM -- a first for Exchange Bank -- in an indoor, 24-hour "vestibule" that allows access with a customer's debit card for after-hours use, said Beth Ryan, vice president of retail banking at Exchange Bank and a leader in the pilot project.
Other changes at the 3,900-square-foot branch will be more subtle, but reflect a changing customer dynamic seen at retail operations beyond the banking industry. While interactions have long occurred across a desk at many banks, customers at the Windsor branch will find themselves in a more collaborative setting while often sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with bank employees. Those employees are also receiving additional training to address the increased complexity of service requests that now account for a larger portion of branch activity, Ms. Ryan said.
"We're trying to create an environment where people like to go to the bank," she said.
The Exchange Bank initiative comes at a time when lenders around the country are considering scaling back their brick-and-mortar branch networks, part of a broader effort to cut expenses in a challenging economic environment. For Exchange Bank, which has also invested heavily in electronic banking in recent years, Mr. Daulton estimated that branch foot traffic has diminished between 5 and 10 percent per year for the past three to five years.
Yet despite slowdowns in branch traffic, lenders seem to disagree that closures are the answer, according to a January report by Virginia-based industry data tracking firm SNL Financial. The $1.9 trillion JPMorgan Chase & Co. added a net of 73 branches last year, while the $2.2 trillion Bank of America closed 244 and banks as a whole closed 229 offices in the last three months of 2012 alone.
"There are still certain life events where people want to talk to their banker," said Ms. Ryan. The new challenge, she said, is adapting to the changed nature of those interactions.
The success of the Windsor pilot , expected to begin remodeling in late May, could ultimately influence activities at the Exchange Bank's other branches. It would not be the first time -- Ms. Ryan noted that the Windsor branch was the bank's first location that remained open until 5 p.n., something that is now a common practice across other branches.