PNC tests prototypes, including tellerless e-branch

Bakery Square model caters to digital clientele; 'pop-up' opens in Atlanta


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There are no marble pillars or brass-trimmed teller windows in PNC Bank's new e-branch in Bakery Square in Larimer. You won't find any tellers, either.

The office is sleek, modern and compact -- one of a trio of prototype branches that PNC is testing as a way to cut costs and still keep a presence in communities.

As fewer people go inside branches -- preferring to bank electronically via ATMs, computers and smartphones -- banks nationwide have been shuttering traditional full-service branches.

PNC plans to close about 200 branches this year across its 19-state footprint, or about 7 percent of its network of roughly 2,900 offices. So far in the Pittsburgh region, the bank has identified 15 offices that were or will be closed this year, including two Downtown, at 20 Stanwix St. and 6 PPG Place.

The Pittsburgh-based bank is experimenting with future branch designs and concepts to better serve a clientele moving increasingly toward digital banking.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 51 percent of U.S. adults bank online, while 32 percent conduct transactions with a cell phone, up from 18 percent two years ago.

Despite the trend, "We still want to have locations for when customers want to talk about an investment opportunity or car loan," or open a bank account, which many prefer to do in person, said Todd Barnhart, head of branch banking for PNC. "We still want to have that physical presence."

The Bakery Square branch, which opened July 1, is about 2,100 square feet, or a little more than half the size of a traditional branch. Construction costs were one-quarter to one-third of a typical branch, Mr. Barnhart said.

With fewer customers needing the assistance of tellers, technology is the focus.

In the 24-hour vestibule, two advanced-function ATMs take the place of human tellers. The new machines, which PNC has been rolling out across all of its markets in the last few years, can cash checks by dispensing $1 bills and depositing change into customers' accounts.

To help people feel more comfortable about depositing checks into a machine, the ATMs stamp check images on receipts. They also accept stacks of checks or bills in a single deposit instead of requiring users to feed the items in separately.

Still, the machines can't dispense rolls of quarters, money orders or cashier's checks. For now, customers must visit a traditional branch and one of the machines' human counterparts for that.

Inside the Bakery Square branch, which has two full-time employees and one part-timer, there's a small welcome desk and two glass-enclosed privacy offices where people can open accounts and apply for loans.

In October, the bank plans to install a "discovery bar" where customers can use touch-screen computers and iPads to get product demonstrations.

So far, the Bakery Square branch has been busier than anticipated, with 24 new accounts opened in five weeks, assistant branch manager Gwendolyn Wright said.

PNC also is testing a slightly larger tellerless branch recently opened in Malvern outside Philadelphia. The office includes video conferencing technology that gives customers with more detailed questions a way to link up with the right expert.

Customer response will determine how quickly PNC expands the e-branch concept, Mr. Barnhart said.

"We do believe we will see more of these types of facilities around the PNC footprint over time," he said.

In addition to the two e-branches, the bank last week started testing its first portable "pop-up" branch.

The 20-foot by 8-foot steel container has one ATM and an area for PNC to demonstrate products and for people to open accounts.

Currently located in a housing, office and retail development in Atlanta, called Atlantic Station, the branch is designed to be loaded onto a truck and moved to various locations.

PNC is using the pop-up as a way to build brand awareness in an emerging market while the bank decides where it might want to open permanent offices, Mr. Barnhart said. Pittsburgh's biggest bank is a relatively small player in Atlanta, a market it entered with the recent acquisitions of Flagstar and RBC banks.

The mobile branch will operate seven days a week and stay in Atlantic Station through mid-November.

PNC isn't aware of any other bank in the country trying out such a concept, Mr. Barnhart said.

"It's a way to reach out to the community and show them what PNC has to offer," he said.

businessnews

Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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