Home / Banking Strategies / Today’s model branch: Technology and donuts

Today’s model branch: Technology and donuts

Banks and credit unions know that if they want to thrive in the age of nimble fintechs, they need to change their physical presence.

Apr 21, 2023 / Consumer Banking

When Hiway Credit Union started planning a new branch in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, one thing was certain: It had to stand out.

“We hadn’t built a branch in many years,” says Tara Graff, Hiway’s senior vice president of marketing and community engagement. “Because of this, we wanted our first-in-memory new branch to be really something—a flagship for the Hiway brand, sort of like Saks Fifth Avenue.”

The site, located on a major traffic corridor, serves as a billboard to commuters and shoppers in the popular Rosedale area. Architecturally, ample glass provides natural and welcoming light, and there’s a Dunkin’ is on-site. “We keep our glass door open between the two spaces to allow for flow of traffic from curious Dunkin’ customers,” Graff says. “There’s also a shared seating area with a double-sided fireplace.”

Banks and credit unions are aware that if they want to not only survive but thrive in the age of nimble fintechs, they have to change their approach to real estate. “A lot of people say they think branches are going away,” says Martha Bartlett Piland, president of Topeka, Kansas-based Banktastic, which offers branding services. “I don’t think that’s true. But I do think the branches of today are going away.”

Indeed, the physical bank branch is far from extinct. “While the world is becoming more and more digital, people still consistently crave the human connection regarding bank relationships,” says Diana Melichar, president of Melichar Architects in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Melichar has designed several locations for Wintrust Community Banks in Illinois that provide amenities reflecting the local culture and architecture. Their buildings are inviting, and customers feel comfortable in them because they feel familiar,” she says. “This is in stark contrast to the cookie-cutter, corporate designs of many other financial institutions.” 

Some operators are experimenting with locations. Last year, Madison, Wisconsin-based Summit Credit Union announced a branch in the city’s Black Business Hub development to help increase opportunities for entrepreneurs of color. For Summit, this is a chance to provide banking services and financial wellness training and coaching to an underserved community.

Across the board, the branch format is nothing like the cavernous boxes of yesteryear. Early in 2023, Georgia United Credit Union broke ground on a 3,000-square-foot branch that it says “will redefine the banking experience for members.”

The facility will showcase a new open-concept lobby design with service spots for members to connect one-on-one. This reimagined space and workflow “will enable our team members to better serve our members and their long-term financial needs,” according to Todd Lambright, Georgia United’s SVP for member experience.

Michigan Legacy Credit Union is converting all its locations to teller-less branches that use smart ATMs to handle deposits and withdrawals, says Carma Peters, president and CEO. Via Michigan Legacy’s video teller platform, members can open an account, apply for or close on a loan, and perform various maintenance tasks.

Increased technology means banks can be smaller. “In the future, if we expand our footprint, rather than a 6,000-square-foot building, we can open a branch with 1,200 square feet and provide all the same services,” Peters says.

For its new facilities, Hiway chose a lean-staff/tech-forward model, Graff says. All of these lobbies are staffed with a branch manager, a mortgage loan officer and three universal service representatives. Basic transactions are handled by interactive teller machines. “We have our team walk our members through use as many times as they need to feel comfortable,” Graff says. “Members, even if hesitant at first, are pleasantly surprised by how easy it is.”

One thing is certain: Every new branch is a chance to prove that in-person banking will forever be part of the community. “We’re building a new experience for members brick by brick, combining the latest innovations in digital banking technology with the hometown feel of our award-winning personalized service,” says Laura King, EVP at Georgia United.

When it comes to bank branches, fresh thinking that blends the physical and digital worlds is essential. “If banks are really putting customers and employees first, then they must upend their assumptions about the entire customer experience,” Banktastic’s Bartlett Piland says. “Customers want it all: Yes, they want digital. Yes, they want apps. And they also want real people to solve their problems or help them navigate their financial journey.”

Dawn Wotapka is a BAI contributing writer

Ideas and insights for banks and credit unions creating the next generation of branch experiences are highlighted in the BAI Executive Report,  “Branches are changing with the times