Monday, January 6, 2014

Five things to know about Bank of America’s new branches

In November, Bank of America reopened an uptown Charlotte branch it had converted into one of its “Express Centers,” a concept the bank unveiled last year.

Charlotte is among six places that are the testing ground for these new branches, which are smaller than a normal Bank of America branch. So far, Charlotte has only one Express Center, at the EpiCentre entertainment complex. It’s unclear whether the bank will open more Express Centers in Charlotte.

Rob Aulebach, a Charlotte-based executive for Bank of America who oversees the placement of branches, said the Express Centers will complement the bank’s network of typical branches, automated teller machines and other locations. The approach is similar to grocery store chains that have small, express stores in addition to their larger, traditional stores, he said.

“Here you have a smaller, express banking center that gives you just about everything the full-service does,” he said. “The idea is to structure a network so that you’re as convenient as possible.”

Bank of America and other banks say they are tinkering with their branches because of changing consumer behavior. The increased use of mobile and online banking is causing some banks to staff new branches with fewer tellers than in the past. Banks see less need for tellers in branches as consumers are able to conduct transactions, such as depositing checks, on their computers or smart phones.

Banks are also experimenting with smaller branches, which they say are cheaper to operate. Wells Fargo began testing a smaller branch in Washington, D.C., last year.

The smaller branches come as many banks are trying to cut costs amid weak revenues stemming from sluggish loan growth and a low-interest-rate environment. As one method of reducing costs, some banks been closing branches. Bank of America’s branch count alone has fallen by 500 since 2011, when it announced a massive cost-cutting plan called Project New BAC.

Although Bank of America has shed branches, Aulebach said the bank still sees a need for them. He said 85 percent of all the bank’s "sales," such as signing up a customer for a checking account, take place in a branch.

"People still buy in person," he said.

Aulebach described the Express Centers as being in pilot mode.

"We’re trying different things and different locations and arrangements to see what the consumer wants," he said.

I recently toured the uptown Express Center. Here are five things worth noting:

1. No tellers. Although tellers used to work in the EpiCentre branch before it was converted into an Express Center, there are no more on site. A wall exists where the tellers once were. Customers who want to speak with a teller can use the bank’s new automated teller machines, which provide access to a teller who appears on a video screen.

The feature is known as Teller Assist, and the tellers are stationed in call centers in Delaware and Florida and available outside of normal banking hours.

Customers have no control over which teller will pop up when they use the new ATMs, Aulebach said.

There are no tellers on site in any of the Express Centers, but all are said to be equipped with the Teller Assist ATMs. The new ATMs have also been put into some traditional Bank of America branches.

2. 2,000 square feet. That’s how big the EpiCentre branch is. It's about half the size of a typical Bank of America branch.

3. Small staff. Aulebach said there are only four employees in the EpiCentre branch: a manager, some personal bankers and those who can handle customer requests, such as issuing new debit cards or providing account balances.

4. Private offices. Although the Express Centers are small, they have private offices for customers to meet with bankers if needed. The EpiCentre branch has three private offices.

5. No video conferencing. The EpiCentre Express Center does not have video access to the bank’s mortgage, small-business and financial-adviser specialists. Some Express Centers are equipped for video conferencing, Aulebach said. But the EpiCentre location isn’t, because such specialists are available in a full-service Bank of America branch at the bank’s headquarters at Trade and Tryon streets, a block away.


Anonymous said...

Three years ago, I moved my small business account from one of the megabanks to an out-of-state credit union that I've never set foot in. I deposit all my checks online (or I can deposit them free at any of several local credit unions and they get credited to my own c.u.) This credit union is great! No mistakes and no fees. That's all I want in a "bank." What I don't like is a bank that's constantly trying to sell me something. That's a big turnoff. And their business models depend on my being sold something that I don't want or need.