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Farmers, 717 reimagine look, feel of banking

Amber Wallace, senior executive vice president, chief retail / marketing officer for Farmers National Bank, stands in front of a large video screen Wednesday at the bank’s high-tech Lab Branch on Boardman Canfield Road in Canfield. An image of one of the bank’s video tellers is shown on the screen.

The nation’s largest banks are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on refurbishing old locations or building new ones, and in the process changing the look, feel and purpose of the local bank branch.

Many of the branches are larger, airier, and meant to feel more comfortable for those walking in with difficult financial questions. Others are being designed as “third spaces” to allow local nonprofits or community representatives to hold workshops or seminars for customers or neighbors. They are a contrast to the marble-clad temples to finance built 50 or 75 years ago and the stale cookie-cutter branches that more recently cluttered suburban malls.

“Coming into a branch can be intimidating. We’re now creating these spaces so everyone can feel welcome,” said Diedra Porche, the head of community and business development of consumer banking at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The trend has gained some traction in the Mahoning Valley. Institutions such as Farmers National Bank and 717 Credit Union have opened new, clean, nontraditional, high-tech locations.

Meanwhile, Capital One opened its latest “cafe” in Union Square in May, a space that serves coffee and baked goods and allows anyone, Capital One customer or not, to sit inside the cafe and work and network.

“Banking shouldn’t be that experience of someone sitting in a suit behind a desk talking about your loan application, but it should be someone who is sitting with you, offering to help you through those questions about money and finances,” said Jennifer Windbeck, head of Capital One’s retail bank channels and operations.

FARMERS NATIONAL BANK

The Canfield-based institution in August 2020 opened its digitally focused Canfield Lab Branch on Boardman Canfield Road, near the state Route 11 interchange.

The branch, which features the bank’s emerging technology and customer service initiatives, including interactive teller machines and large video wall, reimagines the traditional bank branch concept.

At 1,800-square-feet, the branch is the smallest of the bank’s two Lab Branches, but it doesn’t feel cramped inside. That’s because it was designed to be open with high ceilings and an abundance of natural lighting.

Planning for the branch started a couple years before it opened.

“We met with firms that specialize in branches of the future. We did a lot of research on branches of the future with technology, with space, with choreography, all of those things,” Amber Wallace, Farmers’ senior executive vice president, chief retail / marketing officer, said. “It took us a long time to learn about it, research it, because we’re a traditional bank.”

The branch also is staffed differently; there is no teller line or teller pods. Rather, the staff members are universal bankers, people who can do everything from a simple transaction with a cash recycler on their desks to opening a loan or mortgage.

“Every single one of the people who work here we consider a financial professional, they are universal bankers,” Wallace said. “They can run a simple transaction like a teller, but they are seasoned professionals. We have less staff, but they can do everything.”

Also, the branch has four interactive teller machines — two in the drive-thru, one in the lobby and one in the vestibule — that allow customers to link with a live person to perform a transaction.

A similar, but larger Lab Branch opened in 2022 near Belden Village Mall in Canton. Also, Wallace said, the Farmers branch in Pittsburgh is being relocated and made into a Lab Branch on the city’s southside. It’s planned to be open by the end of September.

Future plans could include opening two Lab Branches per year for the next few years in contiguous growth markets, but those plans need to be solidified as part of Farmers’ strategic growth plan, Wallace said.

717 CREDIT UNION

717 Credit Union in May 2019 opened its flagship branch at the credit union’s Larchmont Avenue NE campus.

At approximately 8,000 square feet, the location is a bit larger than a normal branch, but it was designed to be a wide open and free flowing space with a high ceiling and large skylight for natural sunlight. There is no teller line, but six teller pods and a suite of offices for personal and business services, as well as a large video screen.

In the design phase of the $4.2 million building, the credit union recognized there was a shift in the look, feel and design of branches, Eric Lanham, the credit union’s senior vice president of marketing, said.

“There is definitely more of a retail shift toward the environment in banking, and we recognized that,” said Lanham, adding the open space provides versatility in the future as needs change.

It also includes all the high-tech amenities members use nowadays.

The credit union was an early adopter, if not the first in the market to launch video banking, which connects members at any location through a computer or cellphone to a 717 representative.

“It’s just like sitting across the desk from a personal service representative,” Lanham said.

The location also provides interactive teller machines, which connect members to a 717 representative, in the vestibule and in all the drive-thru lanes for more routine transactions.

The credit union’s newest branch, in Canfield, which also opened in 2019 is a smaller version of the Larchmont Avenue branch with the same design elements. In fact, 717 has remade all of its branches to have a similar look and feel, and technology, Lanham said.

ACROSS THE U.S.

Banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo had been steadily closing branches since the 2008 financial crisis. They saw little need for their networks of thousands of physical locations when fewer Americans were entering a branch regularly for routine banking needs and ATMs had largely replaced tellers. In the branches that remained, customers often noticed threadbare carpet and well-worn office furniture and cubicles.

It seemed like the fate of the bank branch was sealed when the technological gains during the pandemic made it possible to buy a home or car without interacting physically with another human being. The U.S. banking industry is estimated to have closed roughly 4,000 branches since 2020, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Policymakers and community advocates criticized the industry for closing so many branches after the financial crisis, particularly branches located in low-income neighborhoods where financial services were often limited to check cashing stores, pawn shops and payday lending storefronts.

Local bank branches are so important that Congress got involved during the Civil Rights Era, passing the Community Reinvestment Act, a law partially designed to make sure banks had branches in poor neighborhoods the same way they did in rich neighborhoods.

The trend of branch closures may be reversing, or at least slowing. Chase is not adding new branches, while Bank of America has considerably reduced the rate of branch closures. Other large banks like Capital One and Wells Fargo are slowly adding branches as well. Banks are finding new uses for their branches, often in unexpected ways.

Despite the spread of digital banking, bankers and community groups still emphasize that physical branches are a necessity. Industry and independent research have shown Americans still want to enter a branch when it comes to big financial issues like buying a home or car, preparing for retirement, dealing with the financial impacts of marriage or divorce, or having a new child.

Some banks are building new branches in unique locations.

Bank of America, for example, brought in Rebekah Sigfrids from Sephora and Victoria’s Secret as its first in-house designer for branches instead of using traditional third-party contractors.

One example of Sigfrids’ work is a Bank of America branch opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that was previously used as studio space for a sculptor. The clean, airy branch features sculptures by the artist who was previously in the space, as well as additional art from around the neighborhood.

JPMorgan Chase has opened nearly 20 of what it now calls “community centers.” These are larger branches placed in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods designed to provide more comprehensive services to typically lower-income Chase customers.

Chase builds the centers with multipurpose areas to allow nonprofit organizations or Chase employees known as community managers to run workshops or financial education seminars for the community. The Chase employees are specifically instructed not to talk about Chase products as part of these workshops, in order to provide higher levels of trust.

Have an interesting story? Contact the newsroom by email at news@vindy.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.

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