A year or two ago, you could easily rattle a room full of retail bankers by predicting a quick death for branches. Just point out how many teller line functions are now capable of being handled in digital channels, extrapolate all the data on today's youth and their dependency on smartphones, et voilà — bank branches are toast.

But it seems few bankers will buy that line of thinking anymore. Try to challenge the assumptions they bring to work every day, and they will argue that branches remain a vital touchpoint, and not just for old people or technophobes. The bricks-and-mortar channel may need some slimming down, and the skills required of staffers are definitely shifting, but just like websites and mobile apps and, maybe one day, wearable technology, branches have a legitimate role to play and are worthy of inclusion in an omnichannel strategy.

This was a key theme at American Banker's Retail Banking 2014 conference, where the break-out sessions on branch optimization were standing room only, and where several general session keynoters gave bricks and mortar their due.

Manolo Sánchez, the chairman and CEO of BBVA Compass, set the tone early, kicking off the event with a speech that spent at least as much time on branch strategy as on BBVA's recent purchase of Simple. The digital-only operations of Simple, he says, will be kept separate from the rest of BBVA Compass, which still wants to be in physical locations - though they may become smaller, with fewer tellers, and comfy couches in place of rigid desk chairs. "What we need is for the branch to be different," he says. "We're experimenting with furniture a lot."

The conference also delved into topics including the future of bitcoin, the art of rebranding, the evolution of big data and the tenets of smart mobile app design. But the chatter always seemed to circle back to the omnichannel imperative and the role of the branch within it.

"It's not branch versus digital, but digitzing all channels including branch," industry commentator Chris Skinner, author of the book Digital Bank, tweeted from the event. (More tweets are catalogued under the #RB14 hashtag.)

Cathy Bessant, Bank of America's global head of technology and operations, was equally unequivocal in her prognosis for in-person banking in our interview on the main stage: "Do branches stay in the picture? Yes, they do."


Retail Banking 2014

When: March 12-14

Where: Hilton Bonnet Creek, Orlando, Fla.

For: Bank presidents, CEOs and senior-level retail bank executives; vendors specializing in services for the retail banking market

Attendees: 450

Key themes:

  • Managing an omnichannel business
  • Optimizing branches
  • Enhancing the customer experience

Host: American Banker

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