Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Branches' Silver Lining

At a time when money is often just a mouse-click away, banks show no inclination to abandon their brick-and-mortar branches. Instead, they keep opening more.

At the intersection of Route 252 and Baltimore Pike in Media, a Conestoga Bank is next door to a Sovereign Bank branch.
At the intersection of Route 252 and Baltimore Pike in Media, a Conestoga Bank is next door to a Sovereign Bank branch.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

At a time when money is often just a mouse-click away, banks show no inclination to abandon their brick-and-mortar branches. Instead, they keep opening more.

In the Philadelphia region, 58 bank branches have opened this year and 72 are planned for next year, according to research firm SNL Financial L.L.C.

"They are sprouting like mushrooms," said Andrejs Penikis, a resident of Media, where the number of branches is among the highest concentrations in the area. "It's just kind of baffling to me."

Penikis, 51, said he paid bills online and eschewed cash in favor of a credit card with a rebate, making him an infrequent visitor to his PNC Bank branch. "I just try to avoid it at all costs because it is very time-consuming," he said.

Despite the skepticism of Penikis and some other consumers, bankers and banking experts said that demand for all forms of banking - at branches, online, by telephone and at ATMs - was growing.

They also said that having branches convenient to potential customers is crucial to winning the deposits - still the industry's bedrock - that come with personal checking and small-business accounts.

Bill Knott, Wachovia's regional president for Greater Philadelphia and Delaware, said he used to think it was people like his mother who were using branches as a social outing. "It's clearly not just the older population," said Knott, 50.

Wachovia said that from 2004 until this year, the percentage of its customers using branches climbed slightly, from 67 percent to 68 percent.

An American Bankers Association survey in August found that a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds used branches more often than any other form of banking. Thirty percent went online most often. Overall, 36 percent said they used branches most often.

"The banking industry is basically accommodating every type of behavior from the extremes of those who never go to the bank to those who go once a week," said Greg Lowell, a senior manager in Accenture Ltd.'s financial services practice.

Spurred by those signs of continued demand for branches, banks are flocking to high-growth areas, such as West Chester and Warminster in Pennsylvania, and Voorhees and Sewell in New Jersey, even as they have not entirely abandoned poor areas.

The 58 branch openings cited by SNL Financial, of Charlottesville, Va., were in an 11-county area covering parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The figure does not take closures into account.

In the immediate eight-county Philadelphia area, banks had a net gain of 106 full-service branches in the three years ended June 30, compared with 42 during the prior three years.

The gains in the year ended June 30 were widely dispersed with 41 banks adding branches, led by Commerce Bank with six. Remaining at the same level were 78 banks. Eight banks cut branches, led by Wachovia, with 17.

Executives said banks devoted many hours to analyzing their branch networks, making decisions about where to open, where to close, and when to move a branch. The goal is to fill gaps in coverage, follow population movements, and win coveted spots near big-box stores.

"It is important that we have branches in places that are convenient to where people live and work," said Peg Marty, executive vice president and director of retail banking for the Philadelphia area at Citizens Bank.

Citizens this year opened four branches, including one in October on a coveted parcel of the Cherry Hill shopping center anchored by a Wegmans Food Market that draws people from far and wide.

Banks' rush to follow the money into the suburbs has had implications for older, poorer neighborhoods.

In 1994, just before a huge wave of consolidation that eliminated many neighboring branches, 21.8 percent of the region's banking offices were in low- and moderate-income zip codes.

By 2000, that figure had fallen to 18.4 percent, and in June it was 17.6 percent of the region's 1,684 branches, according to data on banks from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and income data by zip code from the 2000 Census.

The number of check cashers in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods also fell in the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania area from 261 in 2000 to 251 in November, analysis of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Banking showed.

The city of Chester is representative of the trend. The number of branches fell from five in 1994 to two in 2000 through the CoreStates-First Union consolidation and the closure of an American Eagle Savings & Loan branch.

It remains at two, with a Wachovia branch and a First Keystone branch a stone's throw from each other downtown. The Wachovia branch has seen a steady decline in deposits from $47.7 million in 1994 to $19.1 million in June.

At First Keystone, by contrast, deposits have climbed from $20.1 million to $30.8 million, after recovering from a dip to $15.8 million in 1998.

Warren E. Sell, vice president and branch manager at First Keystone, said last month that he focused on customer service and could not explain the difference in deposit trends at the two banks.

He said foot traffic in his branch was down. "People open their accounts, and sometimes you don't see them again" because they use direct deposit for their paychecks and withdraw money at an ATM, he said.

Nearby, outside the Huddle Barbershop on the Avenue of the States, Wes Brown was standing beside his bicycle with a cup of coffee in one hand and a big plastic bottle holding a few inches of change in the other.

He was thinking about how to get to the Commerce Bank branch 5.5 miles away at the MacDade Mall. That's where the 48-year-old Chester native could change the coins into cash for free.

But the money will not go in the bank. Brown, who scrapes together a living washing cars, said he had never had a bank account. "I keep money in a black box," he said.

Brown is a tough and probably not profitable nut for banks to crack.

But banks have to figure out how to keep serving people like Sharon McCann, of Landenberg, who does not go to the bank often, but likes what she finds there.

"I personally try to go into banks and speak to a human," McCann said. "I prefer the interactions that way, for the same reasons I refuse to use the self-checkout at a supermarket."