Despite my modest years and boyish complexion, I am without a doubt a hard-line curmudgeon when it comes to today’s newfangled bank branches. I snicker with knowing pessimism at the Internet café/coffee shop/retail outlet/hipster branches. Not because I’m not hip, GonzoFreaks. No, anyone who knows me knows I’m a slave to fashion, sushi, gangsta rap and all things en vogue and trendy. I just don’t see, fair Readers, the attraction to the new style bank branch.
So, I decided to see what all the fuss is about. I visited a bank – we’ll call it Shamu Bank – that prides itself on cool, hip branches with no teller windows, areas for children to play, trendy color schemes, employees donning khaki and cotton rather than wool and silk, etc. This is a bank that sells its branches as mere retail stores that happen to sell banking products. Do they deliver? Below is the transcript of my 30 or so minutes in the branch. I swear I couldn’t (and didn’t) make this up:
[I started my visit in the retail shopping area near the front door, where they sell piggy banks (get it? … a bank selling piggy banks!), children’s banking books, change sorters, etc.]
Concierge: Can I help you with anything?
SH: No, thanks, I’m just looking…
[Concierge looks puzzled and returns to his post.]
SH: (to teller at her unenclosed console in the center of the branch) Pretty cool building for a bank. Where’re all the tellers?
Teller #1: (laughs) I am a teller!
SH: Oh really? How does that work?
Teller #1: You just walk up to my podium and do your transaction here, face-to-face.
SH: Oh, OK, I guess it just looks different. That’s pretty cool. I’ve never been here. I was just walking by doing some shopping and…
Teller #1: Oh, I thought you had an account here. You can open one if you want. For our basic checking, there’s no monthly surcharge and no minimum balance.
SH: Free checking? Man, I need free checking like you wouldn’t believe. Bank of America charges me 25 clams every time I bounce a check.
Teller #1: Well, if you bounce a check, there’s a charge. What I meant was that we don’t charge you a monthly fee just for having the account.
SH: You guys are tougher than you look! So I actually have to have MONEY in the account when I write checks?
Teller #1: (laughs) Yes.
SH: So what’s behind this new branch thing you have going?
Teller #1: Well, we’re trying to have a more personal, friendly atmosphere.
SH: I see you have the kids play area over there. Do you have someone who watches the kids? I tell you, I have two wild little hellions. They’d be a handful if you don’t know restraint techniques.
Teller #1: No, it’s just for when you’re here doing your banking. Your kids have something fun to do while they’re waiting for you.
SH: OK, so you don’t have a day care license or anything like that, huh? I couldn’t just drop them off here for a couple hours while I shop or have a few cocktails?
Teller #1: No, it’s just for when you’re here.
SH: Maybe just three or four hours apiece per month, and I swear you’d have all of my accounts…
Teller #1: (rolls her eyes and smiles) So would you like to open an account? What’s your name?
SH: Sure, this place is cool. My name’s Scott.
[I am escorted to a comfy, overstuffed chair by an unassuming desk to wait for the new accounts rep, a young man maybe 25 years old and with plenty of hair product. I’ll call him Jim.]
Jim: How you doing, Scott? I’m Jim. Thanks for coming in.
SH: This is a cool branch you’ve got.
Jim: You like it? They’ve been pretty successful. We’ve been here a little over three years. We’re going to convert all our branches to this style. It just takes time. So, how did you hear about us?
SH: I was just here shopping and thought I’d drop in. I almost couldn’t tell it was a bank. Did I catch you on Casual Wednesday?
Jim: No, that’s part of the thing here. We just dress in normal clothes like a regular store.
SH: Can you tell me about this free checking?
Jim: It’s free. No minimum balance. No monthly fee.
SH: And it includes Internet banking I see. Will they install Internet banking for me?
Jim: Well, there’s really nothing to install. You just get online, go to shamu.com, and you’re set.
SH: But what if my computer breaks or my monitor gives out? Will you fix it for me?
Jim: Well, there are a few customer service numbers you can call, but I doubt they can help you with that. They’re mostly there to answer questions about your account or Internet banking itself.
SH: OK, so as long as I don’t bounce checks, you won’t charge me anything? Very cool. How do you guys make any money on that? I’m a terrible customer. I keep low balances. I’m a mess.
Jim: No problem. We don’t make any money on that. We make our money on loans. We’re the #1 lender in the United States.
SH: Excellent – now, this section over here for the kids… I understand you don’t have a child care license or anything. But would you be cool if I just dropped my kids off for a short time every once in a while?
Jim: (laughs) Nah, I’d be seriously pissed if anyone tried that. It’s never happened.
SH: Well, I may be the first. What would you do if someone ever did that, just store the little dudes in the closet or something?
Jim: Yeah, something like that. I’d be on the phone or tracking those parents down!
SH: If I were you, I’d spank any kids that were dropped off here. That would teach the parents, wouldn’t it? Lock ‘em in the closet and then spank ‘em…OK, you need to get some work done, don’t you? What do I need to do to sign up?
[Jim then asked for standard customer ID info and collected my driver’s license and a credit card. He did a minute amount of data entry, went to the printer to retrieve a sig card, and let me look at it.]
SH: Oops, you got my name wrong. It’s “Scott,” not “Seth.”
[Jim took another look at my license and shook his head.]
Jim: How’d I do that?
SH: I don’t know. Do I look like a Seth to you maybe?
Jim: I have a friend named Seth who I saw the other night. I guess he kinda looks like you.
SH: He’s not nearly as cool as me though, right?
Jim: I don’t know – Seth’s pretty cool.
SH: He’s right up there on the cool scale, huh?
Jim: He’s in a band. They just opened up for Maroon 5.
SH: Oh, well he’s way cooler than me then. I stand corrected. So, you guys sell investments and stuff I understand. What do you think about Google stock? I was thinking about buying some of that.
Jim: I’m not sure. We have a separate guy who does that.
SH: Can I do that here?
Jim: No, it’s a separate number that you call, and they can help you out.
SH: So where do I go when I come in with a deposit since you don’t have tellers?
Jim: We do have tellers. Those are the teller stations right over there. Those girls are both tellers.
SH: Oh, I was wondering what they were doing besides looking good!
Jim: You just do your transaction and the teller gives you a receipt. But they don’t have a cash drawer. If you need cash, they’ll give you a receipt with a code in it. Then you go over there to those machines, type in the code, and it gives you the cash. Even coins. It’s pretty cool – I’ll show you later how the whole thing works.
SH: Why don’t your tellers have cash?
Jim: So no one is out of balance that way. And it helps with fewer robberies, too.
SH: True, you’d have to be a pretty stupid criminal, wouldn’t you – pointing an Uzi at a cash machine and demanding money. But what if I had a truck or something? I could just pull it away. But I bet you’ve thought of that too, huh?
Jim: Yeah, they’re anchored in there pretty good. They’re not going anywhere.
SH: Since your branches are kinda different, do you have to have special experience to work here?
Jim: Not really. We do the same things as regular branches, we just have a different layout and different furniture.
SH: Are you guys hiring at all?
Jim: Not at this branch, but the company is.
SH: (whispers) Do they drug test you?
Jim: I think so. I didn’t get tested, but I think they test now. I’m not sure though – not an issue with me.
SH: Ooh, that could be a problem. Uh, why don’t we just couch that idea for 30 days or so, OK? What about B of A stock – think that’s a pretty good buy?
Jim: I don’t know. I’m really not into that.
SH: Oh, you’re not a stock guy, huh? Mostly a bond guy I guess. That’s cool. What about loans? Do you do loans, or do I need a specialized lender guy? I’m looking to get a loan for a jumping horse. A big ol’ jumping horse.
Jim: Yeah, I make a lot of loans, but I doubt I could loan you money for a horse. You could qualify for a personal loan and get a horse, but not one secured by a horse, you know?
SH: Yeah, I guess that’s some pretty mobile collateral, huh? Kinda like a motor home loan. I’d ride off on that horse and you’d never see me again. Could I put my kid up for collateral? She’s a cutie, man, I’m telling you. I couldn’t even imagine the market value…
Jim: (laughs) Well, you could, but you’d have to leave her here in a safe deposit box or the vault.
SH: You’d feed her, right? Do you have a microwave here?
Jim: No, that’s your job. We have a microwave, but you can’t get to it from the vault. Every time you come in to make a payment, you bring in some food.
SH: That’s hardly worth it, then. I thought you guys were trying to be a friendly bank! If I want my paycheck to go here, I just bring my check in and deposit it, right?
Jim: Well, you can just do direct deposit and not have to come in.
SH: What’s that, like my boss mails you my check?
Jim: No, they transfer the money electronically.
SH: Oh, I’m not sure if we do that. We’re a pretty small company. I bet my boss would be too lazy for that. Is it pretty common?
Jim: Oh yeah, most companies do it. It’s actually easier for him to do it that way than to cut you a check.
[Jim finished changing my name and went to retrieve the new docs, temporary checks, disclosures, etc. This entire process would have been a four minute experience – tops – had I not been constantly changing the subject and otherwise distracting poor Jim.]
SH: Wow, that was fast, man. I guess that software’s working hard for you, huh? Do you have to be some kind of computer expert or something to work here? I really don’t know [squat] about computers.
Jim: No no no. I just know how to use this software; I’m no expert. I use it a lot so I’m fast. How much would you like to deposit?
SH: What’s the minimum? Like usual, I’m a little light on fundage right now.
Jim: $1 is the minimum.
SH: Sold! Then I’ll bring in more when I have it. I guess your commission for this one is going to be tiny, huh?
Jim: Not a problem at all. Don’t worry about it.
SH: Here you go, thanks. I really appreciate it. I’ll bring my paycheck next time, then I’ll do that direct suppository later.
Jim: Direct deposit.
SH: Yeah, right. Hey, why do you have advertising in your checking account brochure for Wells Fargo, Bank One and B of A?
Jim: It’s really not advertising. We’re just comparing our product to theirs to show how much better ours is. I also have some other paperwork for you. This form just says that we won’t sell your information to anybody – everything’s private with us.
SH: That’s good, I hate telemarketers. I wonder what kind of firm would call me after my $1 deposit? That would be some kind of targeted campaign! I think I saw a billboard for you guys once in an airport. It said something like, “Finally, free checking that doesn’t suck” or something like that. How do you get away with that? That’s funny, man.
Jim: Yeah, they do some crazy stuff.
SH: Cool – you’re kinda like a rock-n-roll bank.
[Jim handed me my deposit receipt as he walked me to the front of the store – where the merchandise section is located.]
SH: Jim, there’s a movie in this new rock-n-roll branch idea. You know, Jack Black could be the bumbling teller who screws with the customers…We should put our heads together and do this.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve thought about that myself a thousand times. It’s already in the making!
SH: Oh, so I’d have to fight you for copyright, huh?
Jim: No, it’s actually my cousin who’d write it…OK, you’re ready to go.
SH: By the way, can I go to any of your branches? Like in Seattle? I travel a lot for work.
Jim: Well, you’d be on one part of the system. The other part you won’t.
SH: What part would I be on?
Jim: You’ll be on the main part.
SH: What part won’t I be on?
Jim: You just can’t do maintenance when you’re in another state.
SH: Maintenance? Forget that. I don’t do no stinking maintenance when I’m on the road! Too much rockin’ hard and ridin’ free for maintenance, you know?
Jim: (laughs) I bet that’s true!
SH: (to teller standing nearby) You must feel like a slacker – being a teller with no cash. Do they still have the nerve to call you a teller?
Teller #2: Yep!
SH: That way you can stay in the Tellers Union, right? (to Jim) I bet you don’t have many businesses doing their banking here since you can’t take in much cash. You said you don’t even have a vault, right?
Jim: We have one, but it’s tiny. We get businesses like doctors and lawyers though.
SH: Yeah – I guess they don’t get much coin for payment, do they? I bet my attorney would be seriously pissed if I tried to repay my bail money with a sack of nickels, wouldn’t he?
Jim: No doubt he would. Our tellers can take cash and coin, but they don’t have a drawer. They just drop it in a slot.
SH: You sure I can’t talk you into that horse loan?
Jim: How much is the horse?
SH: Well, it’s a jumping horse. It’s $23,000, but it can sky, man. It’s got some serious hops. It’s all in the hamstrings, you know.
[Jim then very casually asked me about my home ownership status, how much I owed versus its worth, etc. He said they could give me a home equity line of credit that I could use for the horse. He did it smoothly. Zero pressure, but made it clear they could help if I wanted.]
SH: What would the rate on that HELOC be?
Jim: It could be anywhere from 4% to 18%, depending on your credit.
SH: Jim, let’s talk straight here. You know we all make mistakes, right? Would you be cool if I had some, uh, problems on my credit report? Like, if I had a good excuse for some late payments, you’d be OK with me?
Jim: Yeah, we’d be cool. We might have to charge you a higher rate, but we’d be cool with you!
SH: (laughs) You’re OK, Jim. Thanks – I’ll think about it. (Pointing to retail merchandise on the way out of the branch) I have some ideas so you can really move some merchandise in the store section over there. You should get some Metallica t-shirts, dude. You know, you’re trying to be a rock-n-roll kinda bank, right? So bring in the rockers, my man. See how I think? I’m always like that. If there’s any doubt in your mind, then the answer is Rock!
Jim: We hardly sell any of this stuff.
SH: Really, nobody buys it? Why do you keep it for sale?
Jim: They just ask us to. We don’t order any of it. This is the original stuff they gave us!
SH: That’s the original stock? That’s hilarious. I was going to buy one of those piggy banks for my niece, but I said ‘Screw that for $12 bucks! Are you kidding me?’ It IS pretty cheesy stuff, Jim. Think about my idea.
Jim: Did you see we have a teller action figure? It’s the original one.
SH: A teller action figure? Well, I’ll be damned. Does it have the kung-fu grip? [Young Jim looked at me like I was crazy.] You know, like GI Joe with the kung-fu grip…uh…I guess that’s before your time.
[I picked up the action figure and took it to the cashier/concierge. He armed himself with the bar code scanner he had on his desk and started searching the action figure box for the bar code. No bar code.]
Concierge: (astonished) Do you want to BUY that?
SH: Oh yes, it’s too cool. Looks like they gave you a bar code scanner, but you have no bar code to scan, my friend.
Concierge: Yeah, I was just noticing that. We don’t sell much of this stuff. Oh, uh, I can’t take a credit card or debit card for that – only cash. The credit card thing doesn’t work.
[I paid for the $15 action figure – in cash – and Jim and the concierge wished me well. I was on my way.]
I swear this is the transcript of my encounter. I tape recorded it. No H.S. Thompsonian fictionalization in this one, folks. I went into this thing convinced I was going to hate both the theory and the reality of the new hipster branch. I still hate the theory. The retail store was a complete joke, and in my opinion the cashless teller idea was more confusing than convenient. The play area for kids is a reason NOT to visit the branch. People worried about their Ritalin-deficient kids getting bored or rowdy at the bank will use a drive-through, no?
But if it’s such a bad idea, would I have even fleetingly considered moving my business into that $1 checking account as I went through the easy process of opening it? I probably won’t make the move (thanks to sticky bill pay at my existing bank), but the option at least crossed my mind – something I never would have predicted.
Let’s face it, Jim kicked butt and took names, and the more I peppered him with absurdity, the better he got. He could have justifiably turned snotty or called security on me, but instead he had fun with the conversation. All of the staff was chilled out and didn’t try to sell me an annuity at every pause in the conversation. And talk about fast, pain-free account opening processes! Was Jim simply a talented guy who would thrive anywhere – even inside this goofy branch concept? Or does the Gen Y atmosphere by design attract or maybe even spawn a relaxed, Real staff with a disarming cross-selling approach? Is it contagious? It’s hard to tell from this sample of one. But I can now at least see the niche. I don’t see this as a long term winner on a mass production basis as planned, but it could work in some targeted spots – maybe near college campuses and deep inside large cities.
Thank you for your patience.