READER QUESTION #1

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We are considering going to in-store branching, but we saw the news story about a grocery store branch that was robbed in the middle of the day, without anyone other than the teller knowing it. What are some of the different security requirements/concerns related to in such branches?

Greg Gray, SVP of Creative Services, IBT design team, Norcross, Ga.

Robbery risk is a sad fact of life for all branches. While there is some belief that supermarket branches are less susceptible to robbery than other types of branches, due to the well trafficked and busy environments they are located in, their security requires the same careful thought and attention as any other type of branch.

As with any branch, in-store branch security is largely a matter of branch design, equipment and operation. Though the small size of supermarket branches creates some unique challenges, a good, creative, experienced designer should be able to work with the credit union to create a branch design that maximizes security while still allowing the branch to accomplish its "mission" (e.g. to serve members; to add members; to increase "wallet share"). Design components to consider from a security aspect include: location and specification of doors into the branch, location, design and height of the teller counter, position and design of any enclosed spaces, location of the safe and the ATM, specification and placement of surveillance equipment and location of the branch itself within the store.

Branches should be designed for good "lines of sight." Staff should be able to see and hear what other staff in the branch are doing; and all staff positions (both teller and platform/office) should have clear, unimpeded views of the store around them (for sales as well as security purposes). Store staff and shoppers should likewise be able to see what is going on in the branch.

Depending on the specific mission of the credit union's branch, it may be possible to substantially reduce robbery risk by using a "tellerless" branch format, where staff are exclusively devoted to member service and acquisition and have no access to cash.

Thoughtful branch design and appropriate equipment are virtually useless without a well-trained staff. Initial training and regular refreshers on security procedures are probably one of the best security investments any credit union can make, for any kind of branch. Hand in hand with good training is good management. A well designed line of sight is nullified when blinds are installed in the branch office; a security camera's view is obscured by merchandising or a potted plant; cash control and handling procedures get sloppy; staff no longer makes an effort to make eye contact with persons near to or approaching the branch. Good management spots these kinds of lapses before they produce a security "event."

Last, cultivating a good, positive, mutually supportive relationship with the store increases the chances that the store's management and staff will be keeping an eye on the branch. An alert and watchful environment like this can be a very strong deterrent."

Paul Seibert, VP of financial services division, EHS-Design, Seattle

First, I suggest a very careful analysis of why you are opting for in-store branching over other delivery methods. Some credit unions have been successful while a large number have failed at enhancing target member relationship, building higher balances and multiple account relationship and selling high value services beyond increasing the number of transactions per member. We have helped our clients employ in-store branches, but only in very specific situations. The stars must align.

Security concerns are present, but different at an in-store branch:

* False sense of security: Because stores are busy it is often assumed that all these eyes will deter robbers. The fact is that all the activity provides anonymity for a robber. It is easy for them to case a branch while apparently shopping and then approach the branch when it is empty. Their activities seem normal, where at a non in-store branch they would appear suspicious.

* Cash-Is cash provided via teller? - Better security can be provided through the use of cash dispensers or recyclers. The advantage of recyclers is that branches significantly reduce the need to receive and store cash on site, but the cost is high. The highest security is provided through an ATM.

* Information-Most grocery stores are open 24 hours a day. Control of the entire cable pathway is difficult as it typically passes through a number of rooms and ceiling systems. In many stores, the cabling "patch panel" is in the grocery store receiving or staging area and easily accessible by others. The cable pathway and connection boxes should be secured the entire distance of the building.

* Staff-In-store employees usually work different hours than typical branch staff. The required number of open hours often exceeds 67 at most in-store branches. Additionally, they enter and leave the branch through the mall parking lot and a busy store where it is difficult to observe someone with suspicious behavior. Staff awareness should be heightened to observe who might be watching their activities or following them home.

* General-FBI observations suggest that many robberies are thwarted by branch staff seeing suspicious activities outside a branch and then addressing and asking the suspicious person if they can be helped as they enter. In an in-store branch there may be a lot of traffic and activity just outside the branch. What, then, defines suspicious behavior or describes shopping? It is very difficult for staff to discern a threat prior to entry. This situation combined with the number of exits requires enhanced use of video observation. Each branch should include its own visible cameras and a color monitor located where everyone can see themselves on camera.

* Design and Layout-Many in-store branches locate their teller lines on the store hallway. This allows a would-be robber the opportunity to loiter near the line and then approach when no one else is present. It is also popular to place the teller line at the back of larger branches to replicate freestanding branches. But, when one staff member is present, they are very alone and unobserved. The teller line should be placed back from the store hallway sufficient distance to allow placement of an "obstruction" in the form of a marketing kiosk or other branded element causing members and robbers to walk around.

Queuing ropes then block direct access to the tellers and require a robber to negotiate a controlled pathway that makes both access and exiting more difficult.

Jim Caliendo, CEO, PWCampbell, Pittsburgh

The first question that you have to ask yourself is "why is your credit union even considering an in-store branch?" There really has to be a specific business reason for doing so. Usually credit unions enter into agreements with retail stores thinking they are entering a market in a less expensive manner as compared to a stand-alone new facility or renovated branch.

At PWCampbell, we are finding that in-store branches are good for moving transactions and handling overflow transactions from another branch but not necessarily for increasing market share with most of these facility's operations topping out at $10 to $20 million in deposits. Add to those restrictive leases, requirements regarding location, space and hours, and it generally isn't a great option if you are seeking to increase market share.

There really is not a lot of difference regarding security issues for in-store and stand-alone branch facilities. We're not installing bullet-resistant glass or anything like that. Much of the security challenge revolves around where the branch is located, both in terms of the store's location and with regard to where the branch is located inside the store. Obviously high crime areas invite greater risk. But the branch location within the facility may be even more important. It's reasonable to conclude that if an in-store branch is located where you want it to be-close to an entrance-it presents a higher security risk simply due to the ease of someone "up to no good" getting in and out quickly.

So you always want to look at what kind of security and camera equipment are best for the situation. Never staff an in-store facility with just one person-have at least two. And consider partnering with the retail store and installing a joint security system with equipment and alarming.

Ralph La Macchia, CEO, La Macchia Group, Milwaukee

The location of the branch within the store is one component of the security issue. Is the branch accessible from the outside or is it on the inside of the store, off the entry/exit vestibule? Attempt to locate the branch close to the checkout line.

Most of these opportunities are negotiated as somewhat of an afterthought to the store layout. It helps to get involved in the project before the floor plan is developed. The branch should be part of the original building program and plan.

Setting up cameras on the hoods of the teller line showing the face of the member/visitor to the branch on a monitor is also helpful in deterring most would-be troublemakers. When we design in-store facilities, we make sure that the employees are never visually isolated and that the branch has a minimum of two employees at all times. Cash dispensing systems will also assist in minimizing the loss or threat of robbery.

The whole concept of in-store branching is easy access and convenient use by the store customers; this is in direct conflict with heightened security. Obvious security measures will not bother most honest people and will help deter the others.

The DEI Design Team, Cincinnatti

When establishing an in-store branch, it's best to locate the branch near the front door. This area tends to be the busiest area, which is often a deterrent to thieves since it offers the most eyewitnesses. Also, most in-store branches are designed with only one access point in and out of the banking area.

A low wall can direct traffic but also offers a view from other points in the grocery store.

New technology offers a video camera that can be posted near the entrance. Connected to a plasma screen or TV monitor, each person's face is automatically flashed onto the screen as they enter. This can also act as a deterrent since everyone has now seen this person's face up close and on screen.

Have A Question For The Facilities Panel? E-mail Managing Editor Lisa Freeman: lfreeman cujournal.com

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