NEW YORK — In an age when checks can be deposited by smartphone and almost everyone retrieves cash from ATMs, the corner bank can seem a relic, with its paper deposit slips, marble countertops and human tellers behind glass partitions.
But some banking executives say the brick-and-mortar branch is still the best way to serve existing customers and snag new ones. They're trying to rebuild the nation's neighborhood banks into hip, airy spaces where customers sign up for loans without touching a piece of paper, sign in to ATMs with a tap of their smartphones and talk to off-site tellers by video.
Flashiness is only part of the reason for the makeovers. Mounting costs from legal fees and new regulations — vestiges of the financial crisis — have given the banks good reason to become more efficient. The new branches will help them replace expensive human workers with cheaper machines, a development that could eventually make the bank teller an endangered species.
Most redesigns aim to let customers complete simple transactions, such as deposits, for themselves. That frees bank employees for tasks that make money, such as persuading someone who wanders in to put money into a mutual fund or refinance a mortgage.
"Banks have been talking about 'branch of the future' for more than a decade," says Bob Meara, a senior banking analyst at research and consulting firm Celent. "And almost nobody has been doing anything until the past couple years."
Banks large and small are on board. In a Celent survey in June, 55 percent of banks said they were planning "significant changes" to their branches, up from 24 percent two years earlier.
At an investor conference in February, JPMorgan Chase executives touted their new branches as places where ATMs distribute exact change, machines count cash so tellers don't have to and open floor plans evoke the atmosphere of an Apple store or boutique hotel, features that other banks are also embracing.
Still, there are perils in overhauling an institution as familiar as the bank branch. It can be expensive. And if changes are too extreme, customers get annoyed.
"To be honest," says Mike Weinbach, JPMorgan's head of national sales for consumer banking, "we don't know if we have it right."
"I don't think anyone knows exactly what the future of banking's going to look like," he added. He declined to say how much JPMorgan is spending on its new branches.
So far only one JPMorgan branch, in San Francisco's Chinatown, has received all the new features. The company plans to put the redesigns mostly in new sites, rather than retrofit existing branches. The goal is to help ease customers into the change. Still, about 200 branches, out of more than 5,600 in total, have some elements of the "branch of the future."
This is not the first time the bank branch has undergone a transformation. Through most of the 20th century, banks built giant branches with features both lush and imposing: thick doors, chandeliers, lion statues, arched doorways.
They had to be big because they stored every loan agreement on paper and often housed executive offices as well. They had to seem impregnable to convey that they were safe from robbers. And they had to be decorous to suggest the bank was strong financially.
"'Like a Victorian parlor on the inside," says Steven Reider, president of Bancography, which advises banks and credit unions on their branches, "and a Grecian temple on the outside."
It wasn't until the 1970s, when banks started offering ATMs and storing records electronically, Reider says, that branches became smaller and savvier.
The death of the bank branch has been predicted for years as banking habits have changed. Customers are visiting branches less often. The average number of teller transactions has fallen to 15.6 in 2011 from 19.1 per hour in 2005, according to research cited by Celent.
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