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Banks take a detour – back to Main Street

Indianapolis Star

The banking gurus got it wrong. Predictions in the 1980s and 1990s that online banking would quickly make traditional branches obsolete turned out to be way off.

Instead, banks are on a building spree, buying high-profile lots at the busiest intersections, building branches by the dozens and spending millions of dollars so they can deliver what they call “high-touch” customer service.

Nationwide, bank industry experts expect more than $2.5 billion will be spent over the next few years to open more than 1,000 branches.

The reasons for the trend aren’t complicated.

“In the post-9/11 world, people are more practical and they want more face-to-face interaction. And all of that helped trigger this branching craze,” explained Joseph R. Sullivan, president of Chicago-based bank industry consultants Market Insights.

Banks also have decided their best bet in attracting all-important deposits is to build bricks-and-mortar branches that tout their commitment to a community. A branch that a customer can walk into also eases concerns about online fraud.

None of this means electronic banking is dead. Far from it. On a typical day, 13 million Americans perform banking chores online, a 58 percent jump from late 2002, according to a study late last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

That’s why many new branches blend the latest in online features with face-to-face contact. New bank lobbies feature kiosks with computer monitors that customers can use to conduct any number of transactions quickly. At the same time, customers have the option of face time with a bank employee.

Yet despite the rise of online banking, growth on the digital side of the business has been uneven at best. While more than 53 million people, or about 44 percent of all Internet users, regularly check their bank statements online, millions more fear being hacked and continue to do their banking the old-fashioned way, according to a survey of 1,000 Internet users who do not bank online.

“The opinion in the 1990s was that online banking would replace bricks-and-mortar, but that opinion didn’t hold its weight,” said William Coleman, senior vice president of the rapidly expanding Fifth Third Bank, which operates 1,100 full-service locations across the country.

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