Banks adapting as online platforms climb in popularity


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CHAMPAIGN — In the past, when students arrived on campus in the fall, there would be a significant influx of new accounts at the University of Illinois Community Credit Union.

Now, not so much.

"We've got a branch in the Illini Union, and we see some number of students there," said Greg Anderson, the credit union's senior vice president. But "a lot of students come with banking in hand, more than in years past, because of debit cards and online banking and apps and mobile deposit. We don't see the rush like we used to."

In the past few years in particular, more online-only banks such as Ally or Simple have appeared, making it easy for customers to create a checking and savings account from a smartphone.

According to research from BAI, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, most people don't feel like they need to open a bank account in person anymore, with 66 percent of consumers saying they would do so online or through a mobile device.

But 52 percent of financial service organizations don't allow first-time customers to do this, BAI found, giving online-only banks an opening.

Anderson said he sees online-only banks as yet another type of competition.

"There's always been competition: the local banks, more regional banks, Discover Card, or State Farm going from insurance to banking and offering those services, to a whole gamut of student loans and credit cards. It's just more competition," Anderson said.

And he said the U of I Community Credit Union, like other traditional banks and credit unions, has adapted.

"We've added methods of access," he said, starting with a phone system where customers could call and check their balance. "That didn't mean people stopped coming in. Then ATMs, and people still come in. We added online, and people still come in. They want all of it."

But he said new branches are starting to look different.

"They're maybe less teller-centric and more member service-centric," Anderson said.

That's exactly what PNC is going for with its new Champaign location at 302 S. First St.

It's opening there Tuesday after closing its downtown Champaign branch Friday.

"What we're trying to accomplish in the move is to ... help our customers understand the technology and even take them further down the road of technology, because we continue to make those advances every year," said Brian Ray, PNC's Central Illinois regional president. "At the same time, this is what I'll coin a hybrid, if you will. This has all the benefits of a traditional branch."

Instead of a row of tellers, the new branch has two main teller stations, and the waiting room has plugs for customers to charge their phones and connect to the internet.

The ATM in the entrance can also cash and deposit checks, in addition to withdrawing cash. Ray said that should be able to accomplish about 80 percent of what customers come to a branch for.

"We have that fun job of creating a business plan to serve two very different customers," Ray said, referring to those who embrace technology and those who still prefer to do most of their banking in person.

He said 65 percent of PNC's transactions aren't done in a branch, up from 22 percent just five years ago.

"I'm the president of the bank. I take pictures of checks and deposit them that way," Ray said. "I have a branch on my main floor. I go down there and say hi to them, but I'm not typically doing my transactions down there."

But he said there are some things customers, even more tech-savvy ones, will want to do in person.

"You don't want to talk to just anybody about your life savings, and can you afford the condo in Florida," he said. "You want to come in to the branch manager, who's been here for 15 years, who knows you by name, knows your business by name, knows your kids by name, knows your wife's birthday and say, 'Can we sit down and talk for a little bit?' We still have to do that."

But online-only banks are peeling away at services traditionally done only in person.

In its current incarnation, Ally Bank was formed in 2009 as a bank, but now has a cash-back credit card and an investment platform.

Like many online-only banks, it emphasizes no or very few fees.

Anand Talwar, Ally's deposits and consumer strategy executive, said it's able to do that without the expenses of a physical presence.

"As an online bank with no physical branches, Ally Bank is able to pass that savings on to our customers through consistently competitive rates while offering quality service plus leading-edge online and mobile functionality."

He said it's seeing "double-digit" growth, with millennials making up the largest segment of new customers.

Another online-only service, Stash, started in 2015 as an app designed to make investing easy and accessible, and only last month added a checking account service through Green Dot Bank.

"It's rolling out slowly," said Ally Federbush, head of communications for Stash. "We rolled it out in December to our top tier of customers. We had a wait list of 100,000 people."

Stash added banking to its services because in its own research, staffers found that nearly 30 percent of their customers were paying around $75 in banking fees each month.

"Which is absolutely crazy," Federbush said.

Similarly to Ally, Stash banking promotes "no more hidden fees, no minimum balance requirements, access to a network of ATMs," Federbush said. "The whole idea is to get it all in one platform."

Stash doesn't offer loans yet, but Federbush said "it's a possibility."

And other online-only platforms do, like Affirm and SoFi, which just launched a checking account component in the last few months.

While Federbush said she expects online-only banking to continue to grow, she also expects traditional banks to stick around.

"This is the way of the future," she said. "I don't think it will displace other, more incumbent institutions, but it's a trend that will permeate those institutions."