Time to Trim the Branches?
I was walking about the city yesterday, marveling along my way at the tenacity of faith expressed by major financial institutions in the importance of branches. Block after block, at least one and sometimes two or three bank outposts. What must be going on in there? Certainly not the depositing of checks or withdrawal of funds. That’s what we (and, even more obviously so, the Greeks) have ATMS to handle. Perhaps getting crisp bills for tipping? No that’s more a winter solstice kind of activity. Hmm. Mortgage applications? More an online activity. Ditto account transfers. What can they be up to in there? Massive cash withdrawals? I suspect Denny Hastert has put us off that for a bit.
What must it be like to stand as one, solitary teller behind glass in a row kitted out for a dozen or more? All that charm and 'make eye contact' training available in a vacuum. Or to be a branch manager instructed to greet each customer cheerfully, when, if we show up at all, it’s to complain about something we weren’t able to handle via the website or 800-number. Our set point someplace along a spectrum that begins at frustrated, ratchets up to merely furious and then moves into the redline zone of tantrum, and, of course, threatening to close our accounts. Think of all the design memos, Powerpoints and decisions that went into making these settings 'welcoming yet efficient,' 'establishing credibility, confidence and trust,' and 'soothing yet practical, supporting our Brand look.'
It occurs to me that while many banks may be trapped in long-term leases negotiated prior to the large scale digitization of commerce, others may view these (at least from the outside looking in perspective) barren wastelands as the equivalent of advertising. And they own the medium.
I read a book review recently that used the unsettling term “distant closeness.” Perhaps that’s what these branded bases provide: A sense that money, which is increasingly becoming a term for an increasingly abstract notion of something increasingly out-of-sight and, yes, out-of-reach, seems quite real and tangible and close as long as there is a bank on my street corner.
Still, I can't quite stop thinking about that day in the not too distant future when banks opt for "distant distance." Suddenly, once premium street corner real estate, presumably with state-of-the-art digital technology opens up and becomes, well, hmmm, how to say this? cheap. What will go in there? Certainly not more drug stores or Starbucks, the other retail entities with comparable density. Not more Gaps or Sephoras. No chance for grocery. Once the virtual world is simply the world, for what in the world will we be willing to leave home?