Aggressive national and local banks are gearing up for an all-out war for the hearts and minds of Washington's consumers.
The prize: your checking account.
Hundreds of new branches are to open here, and most will throw bankers' hours out the teller window. Bankers are busily courting former Gap and Old Navy managers to transform their branches into user-friendly retail outlets. Free or cut-rate deposit services are expected to become the norm, and customers who demand lower fees from their banks can expect to be obliged. Commerce Bank, a fast-growing New Jersey operation with an emotionally driven team approach to making depositors happy, opens its first branch here next month and promises 200 in the region by 2010.
"With Commerce entering, Washington is about to become the first national battlefield," said Dean Silverman, a McLean resident and director of financial retailing consultancy John Ryan International. "It will be like an invasion, and the established players will do whatever they can to defend their turf."
During much of the 1990s, banks often seemed intent on thinking up new ways to infuriate customers. They cut back on tellers and hours, creating long lines during peak hours to encourage more customers to use lower-cost automated teller machines or online banking.
Annoying nickel-and-dime fees for basic transactions became common at large multistate banks, including First Chicago Bank, which in 1995 attracted national attention for slapping a $3 fee on customers who asked tellers for help.
Now, goaded by savvy new competitors such as PNC Bank, Commerce and First Horizon, a Tennessee bank that modeled its Washington strategy on Commerce's, traditional branch banks are trying to get customers back into their branches.
Mainstream banks are using convenience and personalized service to persuade consumers to pour cash into accounts, so the cash can be redeployed in loans and other investments that make money. And a free checking account is just the start: Branch employees are being drilled in how to tempt customers to take other, more profitable products.
"Banks are terribly bureaucratic," said Arlington resident Don Parker, 67, a consultant who became a customer of First Horizon's Glebe Road branch several months ago because it offered a different style of banking.
Parker had been a customer of several local and national banks since moving to the area in 1964, and had gone through numerous mergers in which banks changed the signs over their doors every few years. He found that when he needed help with deposit or loan products, as he did in establishing a line of credit last year, he was pushed to talk to someone in North Carolina rather than in his branch. At First Horizon, he said, branch managers were able to help him with anything he needed -- be it his condo-association account, his credit line or other matters -- and even suggested ways for him to save money.
"It seems like it's managed locally," he said of First Horizon. It also helps that the bank is open until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. "I work. The only time I can come into the bank is in the evenings or on weekends."
Such individual service, offering highly customized products for each customer and doing it when its convenient, is a far cry from the past 20 years, when most large consumer banks built up their bottom lines by acquiring more banks, cutting costs and jacking up fees.
The mergers resulted in fewer branches in the highest-density urban areas -- "branch consolidation" cut per capita branches in the most populous markets by 12 to 15 percent in the United States and Canada, according to a 2003 study by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. Although that may have improved the bottom line in the short term, the study found that it demoralized customers, who, as it turns out, liked to buy financial products in a branch.
Banks that plan to open new branches are targeting areas of the highest growth and incomes, particularly suburbs and only limited areas of downtown. But some new branches are planned for areas that traditionally have few banks, such as Southeast Washington and the inner suburbs of Prince George's County. Since Jan. 1, 2004, only five branches, one of Bank of America and four of Chevy Chase Bank, have been established in Prince George's County. During the same period, 14 were established in Fairfax County and eight in Montgomery County. In the District, 15 were established, all but one in Northwest, and one in Northeast.
The Booz Allen study found that despite efforts to move customers out of branches, 72 percent of all new sales of financial products still took place inside them. ATMs do not require health insurance or have children in day care, but they are not a great way to build a customer relationship.
"Banks have trained their customers to expect as little as possible and get out of the branch," Silverman aid. "It's an errand mentality. What banks failed to recognize is that the way banks make money, their most valuable asset is the branch visit."
Banks, he said, are beginning the arduous transformation from monolithic, bureaucratic institutions into retailers, trying to lure customers the same way a Starbucks or an ice cream shop invites passersby to come in. Several banks have established branch banking at grocery chains including Giant Food, Superfresh and Wal-Mart Stores.
Wachovia Bank, which has the biggest market share in Washington and is the product of a series of mergers over the past 15 years, recognized that last year. Even though it has one of the most extensive ATM networks in the region, three weeks ago it expanded hours at 30 percent of its branches in the Washington area to 7 p.m., and expanded hours on Saturday until 4 p.m. at 40 percent of its branches.
Samuel A. Schreiber, president of Wachovia's Washington operations, said early indications are positive. "We're seeing an increase in sales during those later hours, and obviously seeing an increase in service visits and teller transactions," he said.
Schreiber said Wachovia is building more branches in the area, six of which are to open this year and a dozen more over the ensuing 18 months.
Banks like Wachovia have good reason to bolster their branch networks. First Horizon opened its first branches about a year ago and promises as many as two dozen more. PNC Bank, which recently bought 51 Riggs Bank branches, says it will open 30 more by 2007 and has slashed some deposit fees in Washington that it charges its customers in other markets.
Commerce Bank, meanwhile, will open its first two branches in the area next month at Dupont Circle in the District and in Manassas.
Many of the retail banking concepts that Commerce pioneered in New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York in the past 10 years -- free checking, night and weekend hours, self-serve change machines, cut-rate or no-fee electronic banking and a hyperactive sales-and-service culture -- are being copied widely by other banks.
"It's put more of the retail flavor into a traditional financial services industry," said Neil F. Hall, chief executive of PNC's regional community banking and head of all of PNC's consumer and small business banking services. Commerce Bank doesn't depend on high rates for deposits to attract customers. Commerce said its customers choose it for two basic reasons: It's convenient and they like the people in the branch. Its employee culture is more like that of a Walt Disney theme park than a traditional bank. Chief executive Vernon W. Hill II modeled its "Traditions" training program on Walt Disney's cultural orientation for new employees.
"Some people come to our job fairs and say, "Whoa, this is not for me," said Grace Migliaccio, senior vice president for human resources at Commerce, who is a former Disney theme-park manager. "But there's that one for every nine that just love it."
Employees who receive the most "wow" awards get stock options and recognition at an annual extravaganza in Philadelphia. Commerce also employs a tactic widely used in the retail business but relatively unknown in banking: mystery shoppers. It employs 260 full-time mystery shoppers, 15 of whom are being trained for the Washington market, to go into branches posing as customers. The results are read by management in daily dispatches.
Commerce gets 2,000 to 3,000 employment applications week, and hires a tenth of them. In Washington, it has hired 45 people, more than half of whom came from retailers, not banks.
Commerce's interest in Washington isn't unusual. Virtually every major bank in the country has tried to be a player here, as evidenced by the wave of acquisitions of Washington's banks in the past decade. PNC's purchase of Riggs was the latest.
Commerce, however, is taking the unusual tack of opening all its own branches: It has never entered a market by buying an existing bank. Commerce's deposits rose more than $8 billion last year, all of it by stealing business from other banks in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Bank executives don't like to admit it, but in private they acknowledge that customer bargaining power is increasing, that a well-timed complaint about a fee often will result in a bank eliminating it in order to keep the business. That's especially true in the Washington market, where banks compete for wealthy, highly educated depositors.
The key for banks, said Lillian S. Kilroy, chief marketing officer of Provident, a Baltimore-based consumer bank that has made the Washington market its primary growth target, is to get the checking account. "While they may have come to us initially for a free checking product, that gives us an opportunity to show what we can do with service and convenience," she said. "That's when you do the cross-selling."
"I think customers honestly expect a whole lot more today," said Brian R. Monday, a longtime area banker who was hired this year hired to run Commerce Bank's Washington operations. "You're going to find that people's expectations are that they should have an opportunity for free services, that they should be treated as an individual."
At First Horizon Bank in Arlington, a palm scanner allows customers to get to their safe-deposit boxes without help from bank employees.