24 October 2009

TD Canada Trust Tests New Branch Format

The Toronto Star, Rita Trichur, 24 October 2009

Inside Toronto-Dominion Bank's corporate headquarters, its secret code name is "Bravo." But on the streets of Brampton, folks are calling it the "branch of the future."

Canada's second-largest bank has chosen this fast-growing GTA city as the testing ground for a daring new experiment that is set to revolutionize personal banking in this country.

Its new prototype branch, at 135 Father Tobin Rd., features an ultramodern design that could eventually become standard fare at all TD locations across Canada. The new "Bravo" branch resembles a cross between Starbucks and Ikea with plenty of high-tech banking gizmos.

Borrowing a page from those venerable retailers, TD's goal is to make its new branch a destination for consumers by giving them a trendy place to hang out with their family and friends.

Its open-concept layout includes marketing gimmicks like a lounge area with complimentary coffee-based beverages, a special kids' zone, a community room and a free coin counter that are also available to non-clients.

Executives are hoping that fresh approach to customer service will translate into more sales of financial products like mortgages, lines of credit and mutual funds. It is an unconventional business strategy made famous by Commerce Bancorp, the New Jersey-based bank that TD bought in 2007.

For the Canadian banking industry, however, the approach marks a dramatic shift from the late 1990s when banks were actively pushing consumers out of branches to lower-cost platforms like online, telephone banking and automatic teller machines.

Tim Hockey, president and chief executive officer of TD Canada Trust, says the new pilot branch is designed to take the "stress" out of branch banking for consumers.

"There was a concept that Starbucks used that I always thought was kind of interesting. And that is `the third place,'" Hockey said.

"And the concept there is you've got your home, you've got your work (but) everybody needs a third place. A place to go where, just like that old Cheers sitcom, `Everybody knows your name.'"

Old-fashioned relationship-building not only makes clients feel appreciated, but it also makes it easier for banks to sell them a wider range of products and services.

And while clients continue to use the Internet, telephone and ATM channels, nearly 85 per cent of TD Canada Trust's revenues "are still generated at the branch level," BMO Capital Markets analyst John Reucassel said in a report this week. He noted the "key" to TD's financial performance is its "focus on service and convenience."

TD's new pilot branch attempts to take customer service to the next level. There are state-of-the-art videophones that can be used to connect customers to live investment experts.

Clients can also use free computers to surf the web or relax in its lounge to catch up on their reading. The bank supplies a range of high-end magazines in addition to local community newspapers.

"You can just sit and have a coffee," said branch manager Nupi Dhillon, as she gestured to the free beverage machine. Children, meanwhile, are free to explore the adjacent kids' area that features an array of books, toys and a pint-sized computer.

In an effort to build stronger ties with the local community, both customers and non-customers alike are invited to use the branch's high-tech community room to hold meetings. The no-cost service is expected to be a hit with non-profit groups and small-business owners.

Other signature items include a document shredder and a free coin counter – an idea inspired by the Commerce's wildly popular Penny Arcade coin machine.

Commerce, established in 1973, based its business model on a stable of Burger King outlets also owned by its founder, Vernon Hill. Its banking strategy was based on a "Wow" culture that often included free treats for children and dogs.

TD has often mused about importing those ideas to Canada. It hopes its new branch experiment will succeed in generating priceless word-of-mouth advertising to attract new clients.

"Quite frankly, the average Canadian consumer doesn't feel all that warmly disposed to their average bank,'' Hockey said. ``So, we're trying to change that, one customer at a time."

Other banks also appear to be sharpening their focus on luring customers back to branches at a time when the recession has taken a bite out of their investment banking profits.

For instance, larger rival Royal Bank of Canada opened 25 new branches this year, while renovating and remodelling more than 100 others. Another 20 new branches are planned for 2010.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Canada's fifth-largest bank, has accelerated its branch strategy. CIBC originally said it would open, expand or relocate 70 branches by 2011. It now plans to complete all 70 by the end of next year, with 41 of those branches ready by the end of 2009.

Christina Kramer, CIBC's executive vice-president of retail markets, said the bank has invested $280 million in its strategy. It is the biggest branch investment in CIBC's history.

"Clients do like coming into a branch to have a face-to-face discussion with an adviser," Kramer said. "It helps establish a relationship. It also helps us spend some quality time really understanding their personal goals and needs."

It is an industry about-face from the late 1990s when banks, especially those in concentrated markets, had an incentive "to lower branch-service quality" in order to steer consumers toward lower-cost online banking, suggests research from the Bank of Canada.

"Between 1998 and 2006, the top eight Canadian banks have on average reduced the number of retail branches they operate by 23 per cent, despite a 37 per cent increase in deposits," says the working paper authored by Jason Allen, Robert Clark and Jean-Francois Houde.

Customers, it seems, pushed back. While Canada is one of the "most developed" online banking markets in the world, banks are facing the stark reality that many older customers still prefer traditional teller service, according to ComScore Inc. That repudiation has helped make bricks-and-mortar branches all the rage again, proving the Internet has yet to render old-fashioned branch service obsolete.

"In the 1990s, everybody in the industry believed that branches – because the Internet was so hot – everybody believed that nobody would want to go in the branch anymore," Hockey said.

"Here we are 10 years later easily, and they're never more popular."