Royal Bank of Canada is preparing to unveil this week a new generation of branch outlet that, if the strategy works, will make people forget they are inside a bank.
In an unusual move for a financial institution, RBC has turned to the Apple Store, one of the more successful retail concepts of the past decade, for inspiration in drawing new customers.
Much as the Apple Store has done with its cash registers, RBC is pushing its tellers to the back of the branch and opening up the front of the outlet to let people come inside and play with technology.
The goal, says David McKay, group head of Canadian banking at RBC, is to attract non-customers as well as regulars into the branch by giving them something to do in addition to their daily banking.
While there won't be a selection of sleek iPads and iPods on display, as in an Apple Store, RBC will offer an "innovation bar" that includes interactive screens and gadgetry.
Its marquee attraction is a surface computer that, when coins are placed on its counter-top screen, automatically calculates the amount of cash, then computes how much it could earn if invested in various ways.
"We looked outside the [banking]industry and a lot of the design principles come from retailers," Mr. McKay said. "It doesn't look like a branch, it looks like a store ... an environment that you want to walk in and interact with."
As Canadian banks battle for customers, the strategy is to reach out to the non-converted. For banks are much like fitness clubs - non-members aren't likely to go into a branch without good reason. So financial institutions are looking for new ways to connect with potential customers.
ING Direct, an online bank that has flagship outlets in major cities, calls its versions cafés rather than branches, and tries to give them the feel of a coffee shop. ING also hosts non-bank activities at its cafés, such as weekly yoga nights at its Vancouver location, which are done in partnership with retailer Lululemon.
ING Direct chief executive officer Peter Aceto said the bank has staff on hand during the yoga sessions to answer questions, but there are no sales pitches to open accounts.
"It's passive," he said. "The cafés are designed to be the antithesis of what we think of as a branch. Sort of soothing - not an official, formal type of place."
Apple Inc.'s lesson to the retail world is that a store where people can entertain themselves will draw crowds. Admittedly, this is more difficult in banking; exploring mortgage options is less fun than putting an iPad through its paces. But RBC figures that features such as a seating area for financial seminars (similar to Apple's in-store classes) will be a relaxed yet welcoming attraction for customers.
RBC's new branch concept will be unveiled to analysts at an investor conference this week. The first of three will open next month in Burlington, Ont., followed by Halifax in December and Toronto in early 2011.Report Typo/Error
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