Banking, Culture and Talent

Bank branches are getting a facelift. What are smart branches?

  • From opening cafés to building community centers, bank branches are changing.
  • Big names like Capital One, Bank of America and JPMorgan may be spearheading the branches of the future.

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Bank branches are getting a facelift. What are smart branches?

As important as digital channels are, branches aren’t completely out of style. In fact, data suggests that many customers still look towards branches as an important touchpoint with their bank. While Covid cut down on the importance of physical locations, some banks are giving their branches a facelift and turning them into 'smart branches'.

Enter Capital One, which launched its first Capital One Café in 2015, but ended up rapidly growing its numbers to 50 by 2022. So, what is a smart branch?

The term is breaking down what a branch was used for traditionally and opening it up to use cases and consumers that would have otherwise not entered through its door. The promise of coffee and free Wi-Fi has worked for Starbucks — why can’t it work for banks?

Showing Capital One Cafe Interior at West Palm Beach, Florida. Clean Starbucks like interior with wooden chairs and marble coffee tables.

Capital One Café interior at West Palm Beach, Florida (Source: One mile at a time)

The concept takes away from the stress and formality that surrounds (read: haunts) banking, and allows both consumers and bankers to discuss their options over a cup of coffee. The strategy ties in with Capital One’s focus on the travel sector, where it has launched its own booking experience, premium travel rewards credit card Venture X, and its airport lounge at Dallas/Fort Worth International.

"At each of our Café locations, visitors can take advantage of community workspaces, free Wi-Fi, ATMs, and a wide variety of beverages and snacks. If they need help with banking questions, there are Café and Branch Ambassadors who can assist," said a Capital One spokesperson.

That’s not all – the bank is going the extra mile when it comes to engaging customers and their communities deeply. It does this by “providing locally sourced food, partnering with local artists to create murals inside our Café walls, and offering free meeting space for nonprofits to use for all their business needs," the spokesperson added.

This café-bank model seems like it's here to stay for Capital One. Their newest café at 59th & Lexington in New York comes with an elevated design and Verve Coffee Roasters, breaking the brand out of the monotony of finance and allowing it to enter the world of ease and approachability. 

Showing the new café at 59th & Lexington in New York, with open modernistic interiors in cream and wood finishing. As well as ATMs and work spaces for consumers.
Showing the new café at 59th & Lexington in New York, with open modernistic interiors in cream and wood finishing.

Source: Capital One, showing the new café at 59th & Lexington in New York

Capital One is not alone, either. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America are also warming up to this concept. For example, JPMorgan Chase is opening up 400 community centers to cover 93% of the country’s population with its footprint. This move comes as part of the company’s five-year $30 billion Racial Equity Commitment (REC) plan, a commitment to hiring local and diverse talent to help communities as well as local small businesses develop.

Community Center by Chase. Clean interiors with booths and queues to help incoming customers.

Chase Community Banking Center, Oak Cliff Neighborhood, Dallas (source: The Dallas Morning News)

All of these moves signal a major shift in the banking ethos – rather than waiting for consumers to step through the door, banks are picking up their pace and meeting consumers where they are. Such initiatives also help open the financial services industry to communities that have been underserved by the system so far, and help balance scales that have been tipped too heavily towards prime consumers for far too long.

Europe isn’t far behind on this trend – Italy’s Banca Carige launched three smart branches last year. The bank’s staff were trained to shift from “selling” to “advising” consumers about value-added services that they could access through their 24/7 self-service branch. Their branch also provides video-conferencing options and tools for consumers, and the new model allowed the bank to cut down on its operating costs by 40%. 

Smart branches don't necessarily mean futuristic features and amenities. In fact, "smartness" can be as simple as going back to the basics: simplicity, consumer-centricity, and approachability.

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