Why Bank Branches and Credit Unions are Crucial to Communities

Smart growth - it's the future.

Put the “Community” Back into Your Community Bank (or credit union)

Multi-channel, omni-channel, banking apps, image capture/intelligent deposit, and cash-free transactions are among the chief elements assailing good ol’-fashioned branch banking and threatening to anihilate it forever, or so the cyber-scribes claim. As Mobile-mania continues to proliferate in our industry, community banks and credit unions should be bracing themselves for a backlash, and I’m not talking about cybercrime. The backlash I refer to will see to it that the physical branch continues to be central to financial transactions and education. The reason for this goes deep into our collective nature. The human being is a gregarious creature, fond of being part of a community. Not an online community, though membership in these can be very fulfilling, but a real community, where warm bodies communicate, make small talk, or discuss the meaning of life. Community is often lamented, as if it has been rendered extinct, but it’s on the way back with a vengeance…

Walkable communities are perfect for financial institutions.

Walkable, bikeable, everything’s right there.

Americans everywhere are turning to more natural lifestyles, but this extends far beyond diet and exercise. Organizations like Smart Growth America and Active Living Research are just two of many pushing “designed communities” and “complete streets”, concepts that seek to curtail suburban sprawl and restore our communities to the town centers where they belong. Community F.I.’s could benefit greatly from siting new branches in these type of centers, especially as the coffee-shop branch model gains popularity. There are numerous communities within New England where “walkability” is being nurtured. Community banks and credit unions can capitalize on this; hire a branch location specialist, find an ideal designed community, and then hit it out of the park branding, design and services-wise.

The Smart Growth movement has been around a long time, but financial institutions are only now becoming part of it. With new construction techniques like integrated project delivery, new branch layouts, and coffee-shop sensibilities, banks and credit unions are about to become the new kid on the walkable block. Imagine a small branch with an open façade like a European café: Customers sit at sidewalk tables, drinking beverages and using the institution’s WiFi. Inside, a central dialogue tower stands next to a coffee bar. A universal banker is on hand, and there’s a private office where a branch consultant sits with a client. This open arrangement (which will only work in late spring, summer and early fall in New England for obvious reasons) effectively drives new customers into the branch, raises brand awareness, and allows the institution to meld seamlessly with its community.

Designed communities are more affluent, which is good for financial institutions.

“Complete streets” are ideal for banks and credit unions looking to bond with their communities.

Walkable communities tend to be more affluent, with an emphasis on being progressive, scenic, artsy, and with low crime rates. Boston is currently ranked third most walkable city in the US, with New York and San Francisco occupying the number one and two spots. Chinatown, Bay Village and Beacon Hill are among Boston’s most walkable neighborhoods, but the Hub hosts literally dozens of small centers where community is all-important. Outside Boston, there are numerous cities and towns within the six states, some of which even enjoy some fame for their walkability, like Northampton, Massachusetts, Newport, Rhode Island, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire study actually found that residents of communities with higher walkability had “higher levels of social capital such as trust among neighbors and participation in community events”.

Bank branches could have sidewalk cafes out front.

Sidewalkable, gregarious, people feel better when they’re sharing life.

Community will always be valued. It’s in our DNA. Like a thermostat, whenever we drift too far away from an existence as a loosely-connected group, instinct kicks in and we are drawn together again, to restore the balance between private and public life. The days of cookie-cutter vinyl suburbs emanating outward from deserted vacuous centers in weird symmetric patterns, is done. Even if “peak oil” turns out to have been a myth, energy efficiency is trumping rampant wastefulness just because it can. The most popular human environments are reverting to a more functional appearance. Mixed-use retail and residential zones, with pedestrian-friendly streets are in high demand, support higher property values, and encourage entrepreneurship. As traditional barriers inside branches are dissolved via dialogue towers, so are the barriers between retail businesses and the sidewalk by adoption of cafe culture. Walkability and community are poised to help remake financial branches in their new image as centers for learning, for gathering, and for receiving personal advice about finances.

Boston community banks are being redesigned to reflect new paradigms.

Newbury Street, Boston. Who’s gonna be the first sidewalk cafe branch in Beantown?

If you run a search for terms such as “new england bank branch sidewalk cafe”, “massachusetts bank branch cafe”, “connecticut credit union sidewalk cafe”, “new hampshire cafe bank branch”, etc, you won’t find many glowing reports of this innovative animal in our communities. This is a good thing if you’re an F.I. looking to take the regional headlines by storm next year. You’ll be ahead of the pack, front and center, with all eyes on your brand. This article is really about community though, not sidewalk cafés. It’s about the return of a less wasteful lifestyle. The Lean movement, LEED certification, and green building designs all tie in gracefully with the resurgence of Community. Many community banks and credit unions in New England don’t realize how perfectly positioned they are to make that first bold move towards enhanced authentication. Being a participant of these complete streets could turn out to be one huge factor in the survival of the branch.

Think about it.