Bankers at traditional institutions appear heartened by the results of a TowerGroup survey, released last week, that found a huge majority of U.S. consumers continue to use bank branches at least once a month.
"People still are looking for personal service," Gregg Christenson, a senior vice president at Huntington Bancshares Inc., said of the survey, in which 92% of respondents said they had made a transaction in a standard branch within the past month. "They want to sit down with the same person consistently who understands their needs. That is the same as it was 100 years ago."
But just a few years ago bankers began to worry that their branches were a burden - and might soon become obsolete.
Now, with Internet-only banks proving less of a threat than many had envisioned, and online banking still slow to take off, traditional bankers are sounding more confident that their branches are worth the effort and expense to maintain.
TowerGroup's findings should help bolster their enthusiasm. The Needham, Mass., research firm's survey of 3,033 households found that most consumers get their banking services through several delivery mechanisms, including branches. Twenty-six percent said they use two mediums, 24% use three, and 20% use four: automated teller machines, branches, online banking, and call centers.
"Our customers are demanding a wide range of alternatives," Mr. Christenson said. "Customers are looking for a choice, and they don't want to be forced into using only one channel."
That need for flexibility plays into traditional banks' strength and explains why many Internet-only banks have been rushing to build a physical presence - either through flagship branches or partnerships with outfits such as Mailboxes Etc., which can provide drop-off services for deposits.
"In spite of all the enthusiasm that financial institutions have for the electronic channels, consumers still want to use the branches," said Michael Weil, managing director of syndicated research services for TowerGroup. "It's come as somewhat of a surprise."
Even consumers who regularly bank online turn to branches. The survey found that 85% of people who bank on the Web had also visited a branch in the last month.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they bank at institutions that offer online transactions, but only 18% of them said they use the service and only 13% of those had used it in the last month.
"People still have a problem with security and privacy," Mr. Weil said. "They shouldn't, but they do because the reassurances haven't filtered through to the customers yet."
Even though it has more than three million online banking customers, the most of any bank, Bank of America Corp. says it is committed to its branch network. Last year the Charlotte, N.C., company began pilot programs in Atlanta to test ways of serving branch customers.
The bank's new branches house more relationship managers and financial planners, have TV sets that air business programs, and hold seminars in community rooms. Each branch has a representative at the door to greet customers and direct them to the appropriate employees.
"Banking centers are not going away," said Brad Russell, a Bank of America spokesman.
Gail S. Kilgour, senior vice president of e-business strategy for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said that customers of the Toronto bank have consistently identified branches as their channel of choice. Some transactions, such as buying money orders or obtaining a safety deposit box, cannot be conducted by any other way, she said.
"Branches are here to stay," Ms. Kilgour said.
Not everyone is so sure. Lori Zelko, a marketing director for SAP America Inc., said she was incredulous that 92% of consumers surveyed by TowerGroup had visited a branch in the past month. "I haven't been in a bank branch in more than two years," she said, but reasoned that some customers, particularly older people, must still prefer the face-to-face service branches provide.
And Jerry Verdi, president of Verdi & Co., a Buffalo, N.Y., subsidiary of Diebold Inc., said his firm's November survey of 1,500 consumers found that most want branches - but with better-trained representatives and faster service. "The new Fidelity, E-Trade, and Schwab branches are very exciting and retail-looking," he said, and have what customers are looking for - "speed and knowledgeable people."
Deborah Bach contributed to this article.