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Let Pop-Ups Crop Up

As fans of temporary tattoos and non-permanent hair dye can attest, sometimes people want to try a new look without making a commitment. It was in that spirit of experimentation that PNC opened an orange-and-blue pop-up branch on the sidewalk of a busy Atlanta outdoor mall last summer.

Having recently expanded into the region, Pittsburgh-based PNC used the portable pop-up branch as a "way of planting a brand flag" in a high-traffic hub, says Todd Barnhart, executive vice president of branch banking at PNC.

The 20-by-8-foot steel container, dressed up with, windows, flat-panel monitors, a walk-up ATM and other comforts of a bricks-and-mortar branch, served as an eye-catching ambassador for the company. Two iPad-wielding employees helped customers open new accounts and apply for personal loans while providing referrals for mortgages and other products.

"People are naturally inclined to respond to innovation," Barnhart says of the unusual temporary branch. "For us it was really intriguing to see how open people are to discussing their financial well-being and engaging with us on the street on a day when they're out to shop or eat lunch."

PNC is still evaluating the results of the pilot branch, which closed in November. One early takeaway, according to company officials, is the benefit of keeping extended hours. The pop-up branch was open seven days a week and kept the lights on until 7:30 pm on weekdays.

Temporary branches may become part of a larger trend as banks look for ways cut back on overhead without neglecting customer service, according to Sherief Meleis, a partner at management consulting firm Novantas.

"The premise for this is basically that branches are too expensive," Meleis says. The transportable pop-up branches "are a way to get the perception of convenience much more cheaply."

Compared with the more familiar idea of mobile branches, pop-ups impart a greater sense of stability, says Ethan Teas, a principal at Novantas. A pop-up branch "is more permanent in terms of both the feel-it doesn't have wheels on it, so there's not the awkwardness of a mobile branch-and in terms of intention," Teas says. "A mobile branch is something you bring to a farmer's market. A pop-up branch might be there only three to six months, but it's got an address, so to speak."

Pop-ups also can enable banks to reach customers in disaster areas. Australia's Commonwealth Bank cited its experience working with customers in the state of Victoria after bushfires devastated the region in 2009 as the inspiration for its decision last year to refashion shipping containers into branches that could be loaded onto a truck and deployed quickly in an emergency.

The ability to have a pop-up presence can be equally handy during special events of a more positive nature. "The Olympics are six weeks, but you don't want to build something permanent," Meleis says.

"So you take the idea of going to the customer rather than waiting for the customer to come to you."

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