As the Internet and mobile banking transform financial services, Canadians have excellent reasons to forsake traditional bank branches.
Now that someone can send money to a friend online, or pay for goods with digital wallets stored on a smartphone, many customers would seem to have less motivation to drop into bricks-and-mortar branches.
But they like to. Despite the growing array of high-tech financial services, experience proves that people still prefer to perform some banking activities face-to-face – especially ones that are tied to big life moments, such as setting up a retirement savings plan.
Even bank executives have been surprised by the appeal of bank branches – and not just to the older generation. In a client survey by the National Bank of Canada, 18- to 30-year-olds said they appreciate living near a branch, and even the most tech savvy consumers still mention the location of physical branches as an important factor when choosing a bank.
Financial institutions are catering to the need for human contact by gradually increasing the size of their domestic branch networks. Royal Bank of Canada, for example, now operates 1,255 branches in Canada, up from 1,214 at the end of 2011. Other banks' networks are expanding by similar amounts.
While the growth is slow, it is noteworthy at a time when smartphone and online banking make it easier than ever for customers to avoid stepping foot into a physical office. And it underscores banks' attempts to morph from being processors of mundane transactions to advisers on a wide range of financial matters.
As part of that process, banks are retooling existing branches to devote less space to teller counters and more to personal banking desks, with comfy couches in waiting areas.
"All the major moments, your first mortgage, your first business loan … all require a more personal touch," said National Bank of Canada chief executive officer Louis Vachon. Branches are "the big battle front for the next three to five years," he asserted.
One of the keys to winning will be positioning branches as a selling point for a much wider array of banking services than simply cashing a cheque or depositing money. The idea is to make them a one-stop shop for everything from mortgages to mutual funds.
"The character of what you do in the branches is clearly going to change dramatically in the next 10 years," Toronto-Dominion Bank CEO Ed Clark said. "They're going to be less service centres, and more help and advice centres."
Mr. Clark's belief in personal contact reflects his own experience. A few weeks ago he needed help with a computer problem at 11 p.m., so he called his daughter. Rather than trying to explain over the phone, she simply said, "Stay where you are, I'll drive over." In person, she was able to solve the problem in minutes, and it made Mr. Clark's life much easier. "I was desperate," he joked.
The big rethink around branches comes after Canada's banks invested heavily in bold digital ideas. All ramped up telephone banking and upgraded their online banking portals over the past 15 years. Bank of Montreal even created mbanx, a virtual bank, in 1996.
At the time, BMO thought there would be a heavy appetite for a platform that could allow customers to "conduct their banking any time, anywhere, anyhow." Despite spending millions on an advertising campaign and pushing the division for three years, BMO eventually gave up on the idea and folded mbanx U.S. into its Harris Bank subsidiary and Canadian mbanx into its personal and commercial business at home in 1999.
For now some Canadian banks are more vocal about the branch plans than others, but Mr. Clark said it's only a matter of time before everyone is on the same page. "You're going to see [spending] throughout the entire industry," he said. "We're all moving in the same direction here."