The Branch of the Future: What Does It Look Like?

With nearly 60% of traditional banking products still being sold in the branch, it's hard to argue that the brick-and-mortar channel still doesn't play a significant role in the retail financial industry. Seven experts on retail banking and branch design share their thoughts on how banks and credit unions will need to re-imagine a new future for face-to-face banking services in the physical world.

Kevin Blair, President/CEO at NewGround

There are over 60,000 branches today that are more than 15 years old. These legacy branches are typically too large, lacking technology and are generally irrelevant in today’s dynamic market. Many of these older branches should be downsized or replaced with new experiences, but most financial institutions underestimate the scope of investment this requires — beyond the cost of the physical bricks and mortar. Today it’s not uncommon to have technology and retail packages that exceed $500,000 in total investment, including the traditional security equipment package, cash automation, video teller machines, digital media and retail experience.

The hub-and-spoke retail distribution model has been around for decades, however financial institutions only now are beginning to understand the power of its application. The strategy relies on a tiered retail distribution model that is anchored by larger flagship experiences with 5,000+ square feet that radiate outward to full-service branches with 2,000 to 3,500 square feet, then down to neighborhood outlets with 1,200 to 2,000 square feet, and ultimately micro branches with as little as 500 square feet.

Subscribe TodayBecause the vast majority of branches in existence today are full-service size, the infilling for most financial institutions are the smaller neighborhood and micro size branches, which can be misleading. Some financial institutions incorrectly draw the conclusion from this that they should only build small format branches. Wrong.

Five years from now, there will be 3,000 fewer banks and credit unions due to consolidation and acquisitions — about 600 less per year. This consolidation will drive significant change not just at the branch level, but also in the back office. Consumers are migrating to digital channels for more than just simple transactions. Even today, fairly complex lending products like mortgages are being done online with more and more frequency. This trend will only accelerate, forcing branch models to evolve with the market.

As branches generate less foot traffic, back office “Digital Experience Centers” must expand to meet the growing demands of consumers. Far too many financial institutions are talking about the “Branch of the Future” when the investment and reach of a $2 million investment will only serve a 5-10 mile radius. There isn’t enough attention on creating the “Digital Experience Center of the Future” that can serve a global market.

In ten years, there will be far fewer physical branches. Consumers will communicate with their personal banker through digital channels and the need to visit a physical branch will only occur for the most complex sales and service issues. Branch networks will be consolidated with little need for transaction centers. Larger flagship “community experience” centers will dominate the network in urban markets, while rural markets will still have access to full-service sites.

John Hyche, SVP/Principal at LEVEL5

Business models differ, and those differences matter. The models that drive Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo are vastly different than those of community banks or credit unions.

One aspect that gets little play in the conversation about branches is the importance of commercial lending to small businesses. Community banks have a large share of this market. This is an area that automation has yet to influence the way it has with auto or mortgage lending. While this may not be the sole factor driving the design, style and size of future branches, we’ll see an ongoing need to provide space for bankers and commercial clients to interact and develop relationships.

“Branch footprints will shrink based on purpose, market, and business case. Designs will reflect the audiences they serve.”

The banking industry has been fascinated with Millennial demographic shift for years. A couple of interesting things intervened to muddle up the anticipated transfer of wealth. Quality of health care and emphasis on healthy living is extending life expectancy, so Grandma and Grandpa Boomer are holding onto their money longer. The Great Recession knocked the stuffing out of a lot of retirement plans, causing everyone (but Boomers in particular) to defer retirement and remain in the workforce. These changes force financial institutions to focus on a wider, more engaged, multi-generational audience than in the past. A decision to focus on or abandon one demographic in preference for another is done at the institution’s peril.

For branches going forward, engagement will be key. This includes product sales, problem resolution and sound advice. Staff competency and training will be top notch. Fewer employees will be “entry level.” More will have a breadth of skills and knowledge base that they bring to bear on their customer’s issues. Given the variety of technological channels through which customers can interact with the institution, the customers who actually visit the branch evidence a need that they believe can be best fulfilled by someone at the branch. This expectation must be met with competency. Branch footprints will shrink based on purpose, market, and business case. Designs will reflect the audiences they serve.

Mark Weber, President/CEO at Weber Marketing Group

If you’re not a trillion dollar megabank, it’s far easier to make thoughtful and distinct future branch designs and solutions because you’ve already created a solid consumer and small business segmentation strategy. You know who you serve — who you are trying to attract, retain and grow profitable relationships with.

Using psychographic segmentation, you can learn critical insights into how individuals think and behave, where they shop, what they value, and how they use everything from debt, to savings and investments to shape their lives. Imagine how you could tailor branch designs if you were armed with that information.

“Above all, future branch solutions must be anchored first in relevant data analytics.”

A survey of executives in the banking industry revealed that the top three initiatives planned for 2017 among leaders included: 1) removing friction from the customer journey; 2) use of big data and advanced analytics; and 3) improvements in integrated multichannel delivery. These are three great places to begin your planning journey for improving user touch point experiences.

Adaptive, versatile spaces in branches can give financial institutions the flexibility and varying hours they need to accommodate different audiences and constantly changing — like homebuyers and realtors, small business owners and wealth management users. Flexible designs allow for an easy change out of new technologies that may not even exist today, but won’t required costly renovations. This kind of “adaptive design” requires careful consideration, so that you aren’t just designing spaces built specifically to accommodate the newest interactive teller machines but won’t handle future innovations — machine learning apps and in-store analytics, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons, etc. Technology and consumer behavior are moving too fast for a non-adaptive approach.

Future branch designs should focus around four key themes:

1. Increase Meaningful Conversations and Valued Relationships. Engage relevant and helpful interactions that help clients get ahead. Personalize interactions and choices. Increase satisfaction — NPS and satisfaction scores, and the resulting referrals.

2. Enhance Talent and Build an Engaged Culture. Acquire exceptional people skills and talent. Help members/customers accelerate their financial goals. Design a superior work environment people want to work in.

3. Simplify and Adaptive Experience. Design user-intuitive spaces that are easy to navigate and learn in. Ensure every Mobile, tablet, and online banking touch point is simple and seamless. Develop flexibility and adaptivity in design as technologies shift.

4. Share the Unique Story Behind Your Brand and Solutions. Why do you exist and WIIFM? How are you making a difference in people’s lives and your local communities? How are you helping people get ahead?

Sean Keathley, President at Adrenaline

Instead of wondering what the “branch of the future” will look like, a better question might be “what will your branch network look like in 10 or 20 years,” since the future of branches will come in multiple formats.

Micro- or mobile formats will exist for 24-hour transactions or consultation by both appointment and drop-in, including video conferencing. Larger flagship formats will receive greater investment and attention to serve as brand statements, community hubs and staffing space for experts. Overall spending on branch real estate and technology will directly reflect the organization’s potential for market share. Most importantly, routine transactions will continue to migrate to virtual channels, while high-value interactions, consultations and service issues will become the primary purpose for branches.

New technologies will continue to emerge, and the most successful branch designs will be modular and flexible to allow tech to phase in and out. Hand-held technologies like tablets will become more prolific, with heightened functionality and integration with both core systems and CRMs. Two-way video conferencing with on-demand experts both inside the branch and at the drive-ups will become common, freeing up space in the branch floorplan. Digital signage will exist everywhere as the primary form of merchandising. Environments will become ergonomically pleasing on multisensory levels, from sight to sound to smell. The education and caliber of service personnel will continue to transition from task-doers to expert consultants.

Ray Wizbowski, Chief Marketing Officer at Entrust Datacard

Branches are still essential for financial institutions because they provide an essential avenue for people to interact with a financial institution’s brand. However, consumers’ expectations concerning when and where they should be able to access bank services has changed. With a mobile device in our hands, people expect to connect with their financial information anytime, anywhere. This means branches must evolve to add increasing value and provide experiential retail to consumers. If someone can easily transfer money on their mobile device, what will motivate them to visit a branch? In response to this shift, future bank branches will take the form of modern retail spaces that showcase the various technologies and products available to consumers.

“The branch of the future will be fueled by technology with a personal touch.

We’ll see automation begin to play a larger role in branches in the coming years. One example of this is advanced ATM platforms that provide additional financial management services such as robo-advice. Biometric authentication, such as retinal scans, could eliminate the need for consumers to remember their account number and PIN before withdrawing or depositing money. Additionally, we’ll see wearables enter the bank branch experience — logging into an ATM using a one-time password or authentication code which is sent to the consumer’s smartwatch or the ability to authenticate a user through integrated iBeacon technology.

The human element will never go away, but we’ll likely see it take a virtual route. Rather than visiting a local branch and speaking to an advisor in person, banks and credit unions may deploy video conferencing that allow consumers to Skype with financial experts located around the country.

Kevin Poirot, SVP at PWCampbell

Everyone knows that the number of branches is declining, but it helps to look at those numbers in more detail. FDIC insured full service locations stood around 83,000 in the fall of 2016 and credit union branches reported over 20,000 locations. (By comparison, there are 115,000 gas stations in the US.) When you consider the US population is about 324 million and about 19% are under the age of 15, that leaves you with one branch for every 2,500 adults. To many industry observers, that number seems too high. The right number of branches should probably look similar to the density of pharmacies in the US, which currently stands at 67,000. But it will take quite a while to get there.

The reason so many people struggle with the question on what the “Branch of the Future” will look like is because formats and designs will be much more divergent and differentiated between institutions in the future.

There is a fundamental formula for calculating brand strength: multiply “brand relevance” by “brand differentiation.” In the past brand relevance was not strong in the financial industry because new account openings were driven primarily by convenience — proximity of a physical location. With in-branch transaction volumes declining and the ability to open accounts virtually anywhere, convenience is no longer the driver it once was. This has given new importance to brand relevance in the banking world.

At the same time, financial institutions have never had so many tools at their disposal to differentiate their brands. When you combine the fact that banking products are more differentiated with greater delivery methods and the incredible selection of materials available to designers today, the branch of the future will have a stronger brand presence than ever before — it matters now more than ever.

A visit to the bank will continue to become more of destination and less transient than yesterday’s trips. When you look at shopping and buying behavior, it’s clear that the more important the transaction and larger the dollar amount, the further people are willing to travel. That’s why car dealers have continued to consolidate in larger — but increasingly more distant — lots. Ultimately, these trends will afford the opportunity for banks to compete on brand, which doesn’t equate to more locations, just better ones.

Steve Reider, Founder of Bancography

We decidedly disavow the term “Branch of the Future,” and completely refrain from it. In fact we published an article couple years back titled “The Branch of Now”. The article stands as a reminder that banks and credit unions shouldn’t forsake the needs of today’s key customers — those who are generating today’s profits — while rushing to embrace a generation that still hasn’t reached its peak profitability.

Nevertheless, what a branch building will look like 5 to 10 years from now hinges on its function, and not all branches will serve the same function. One of the benefits of technology is the ability to fragment a branch design into small divisions of functionality, and offer a greater portfolio of models that can accommodate an array of needs and a range of purposes — from pure self-service ATMs or video tellers to specialized areas for wealth management and loan origination centers.

A reduction in cash demands prods us to question what constitutes a branch. If a branch can be anywhere a representative of the institution is and where consumer interaction occurs, then it can be a mobile service rep with a tablet who visits someone in their home, or meets with an employee in a workplace cafeteria, or serves college students in a dormitory residence hall.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t pigeonhole ourselves into any rigid context for the future of branches.

This article was originally published on February 27, 2017. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Ugh!

    I really liked Steve Reider’s comments. Kevin Poirot shared relevant data.

    The bottom line is simple. Almost all banks and credit unions with more than one branch have at least one branch that needs to be closed ASAP. The financials are clear. It is the fiduciary responsibility of the senior staff, board of directors and the owners to run financially solvent and compliant companies. I know first-hand closing branches is not easy. That being said, the banks and credit unions that excel over the next decade will be the ones who figure out how to drastically reduce their physical footprint while digitally expanding their footprint and enhancing their remaining brick-and-mortar channel to be a voice, call and face-to-face support system for the digital channels. There will be many variations of this. Some banks will excel by growing their physical footprint while drastically reducing the square footage that services their trade area.

  2. Physical Channels are still, and will continue to be, the relationship builders in Retail Banking. Banks that currently have an important branch network in terms of legacy footprint will certainly need to evolve it, however, those points of sale are their core strength for creating a great customer experience. On the other hand, branch sales have proven to deliver high ROI transactions.

    Digital channels are developing at a great speed, enhancing the customer experience and helping reduce cost, but will never replace the face to face interaction that is key for customers of all ages.

    Going forward financial institutions will need to think more about their channel’s integration and customer’s flow within all channels in order to excel in their service.

  3. With all due respect to Mr. de la Cabada, his comments reflect a common mistake that way too many people in this industry make: Confusing person-to-person communication with face-to-face communication.

    It’s NOT the physical presence that provides the value in banking interactions. It’s the ability to have a conversation with a knowledgeable person.

    And I’ll state this for the umpteenth million time: In the world of banking, there is little need for both the customer and the knowledgeable employee to be in the same physical location.

    The decisions are NOT that complex. Picking a checking account? Piece of cake. Complexity of selecting a mortgage? Overstated.

    As a man with a wife and 3 daughters (all of driving age), I can tell you that in my personal situation, the most complex financial decision I have to make is figuring out car insurance. The 2nd most complicated issue is dealing with the insurance company when a claim is involved.

    I’ve been living in my house for 25 years (so the need for “advice” around a mortgage passed by 25 years ago). I’ve never met my insurance agent in person. She could be sitting next to me right now and I wouldn’t know. Yet, my relationship with her is way stronger than it is with the 437 branch managers that have passed through the Bank of America branch here in North Reading, MA.

    The branch is NOT what builds relationships in banking. It’s a combination of factors involving people, technology, processes, policies, and perceptions. Physical location is NOT a prerequisite.

    If a bank decides it wants/needs physical locations to support its strategy, I’m all for it. But to say “digital will never replace the face to face interaction that is key for customers of all ages” is not a defensible statement.

  4. As the power of predictive analytics and machine learning become more utilized in banking, not only will banks and credit unions be able to determine (well in advance) what products and services will be needed, but also which variety of product/service and the channel the customer would most prefer. This model, already being tested in wealth management, combines the intelligence of cognitive analytics with the optimal delivery model for the customer. It is not a sales model, but a fulfillment model based on needs.

    The result is a combination of the best advice with the best customer experience. The biggest challenge (and differentiator in the future) will be who realizes that it’s not about giving everyone everything. It’s about determining what is best for each customer and delivering it in the most efficient manner.

    In our household, I bet my next branch manager will be Alexa or Siri and my need to go to a physical facility will be based on what my bank can’t deliver in the way I would prefer. In the end, there will still be many that will go to the branch. It just may be for different things than today.

  5. The single biggest reasons for me to go to the bank are:

    1) Notary services – I have actually needed to do this at least once in 2016.

    2) Get cash for a birthday gift. Every now and then I like to get very nice looking $50 or $100 bills for special occasion gifts since cash is nostalgic.

    3) Deposit a check that remote deposit capture rejects due to the value exceeding a set limit. This has yet to happen to me but it may happen.

    I would like to know what others have done at bank or credit union branches in the last year?

  6. The Financial Brand receives some 400-500 checks from attendees who have registered to pay for The Financial Brand Forum conference. It isn’t really practical to deposit these remotely. We could send them through the mail, but that isn’t particularly safe or secure. So we take them to the branch and deposit them in batches of about 50 at a time. It is the most practical and efficient solution.

    This illustrates two points:

    1) That physical branches will continue to have a role as long as there are physical instruments in banking (e.g, checks, or the cash that David Gerbino likes to give for birthdays, or the coins that Ron Shevlin cashed in for one of his daughters).

    2) The needs of businesses aren’t the same as those of retail consumers.

    I suppose the large batches of checks we deposit could be plopped in a drop box. But I very much appreciate the in-branch experience when making these deposits. It allows me to immediately catch any accounting issues — e.g., mismatch in amounts/totals, or checks that are rejected (such as those from our international attendees). We could probably also ask the bank for our own check scanner, but it doesn’t seem necessary… and we are all on Macs. The bank’s branch is less than 10 minutes away, and situated in a shopping plaza that my family frequents at least 3-4 times a week. It’s pretty convenient.

  7. Jeffrey, You should talk to your banker about Remote Deposit Capture (RDC) scanners that work with your Mac. They should be able to show you how you can deposit a large number of checks right there in your office in less time than it will take you to walk to your car for that 10 minuted drive to the branch. In many cases this service is free.

  8. Jeffry brings up a good point in the differences between a business relationship and consumer relationships. Though every study imaginable points to consumer preference for the branch, and its weight in their decision making to choose an FI, it is not unreasonable to predict the consumer function of facilities could diminish. We’ve seen some erosion in the first decade of access with all things Mobile. Nearly 19% of all new banking relationships come through Mobile – while 77% walk through the door…according the JD Power. But we have not seen Mobile adoption and preference to the extent to develop a business case where FIs would right off their investment in their physical distribution networks.

    This is not a small problem to solve as the largest Banks in the US have thousands of facilities (there over 90,000 bank branches in the US). And until currency is diminished these channels are needed by many.

    On the business side, this function of banking is where many FI’s financial engine soar. Even Mega Banks rely on the opportunity of larger credits, especially in a rising rate environment. Larger credits don’t always mean larger yields, but it does help the FI build a business. You could very easily argue that smaller banks should do more consumer lending because rates are so high, but they don’t.

    Again, being zealous for the value of the branch or against the branch neglects the nuances of each bank or credit unions business model.

    A locally owned Bank under $1 Billion in assets might not be able to offer convenience and therefore they can’t grow their business without physical locations. Especially, when business models skew commercial – C&I Lending (which by the way is at all time high according to the FED) and CRE Lending which is growing about 8% per QTR the last 18 months. A similar argument is true for CUs who are by nature – local, yet consumer driven. For each, physical convenience is important for scale, connection and revenue.

    Furthermore, there are millions of business owners in the US who need relationship banking to fund their business, plan their financial future and advocate for them beyond just the metrics. Their lives are more complex than mortgages and auto loans – but these are not trifle for the vast majority of Americans.

  9. Chris Yaldezian says:

    I tend to agree with Ron comment. My broker lives in Thousand Oaks, and works in the Westlake office in So Cal. I live in the SF East Bay;350 miles apart. We talk a couple times a month. Likewise, with my insurance person. My last mortgage re-fi was done, online and at home with the notary visiting me, as opposed to me going into the branch.

    Branches of the future will be smaller, fewer and fit for purpose to fit with a bank’s strategy for them and their customer base.

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