The new branch: Everyone's 'cup of tea'?
Walking along Boulder's famous Pearl Street Mall on Easter Sunday, you might have though you'd been transported back in time.
There were street musicians playing drums, trumpets and guitars, which just as easily could have been drums, horns and harps from medieval times.
Add jugglers with knives and flaming batons alongside hawkers of hot dogs and ice cream and you begin to picture a scene that's a lot different to what you would encounter walking through any modern mall.
A number of restaurants, cafes and bars were open on Sunday, but these weren't the businesses that caught my eye this day. On the corner of one intersection was something quite different: a combination cafe and branch banking office jointly occupied by Capital One and Peet's Coffee.
It took a while to realize there were no divisions separating cafe and branch office; rather, the branch office comprised an island and a couple of tabletop seating areas that faced the counters serving coffee.
The branch manager introduced himself as the "Cafe Master" and pointed out that there was no mention of the word "bank," or indeed, "manager" in his title.
Much to the surprise of my wife, Margo, and myself, among the first to chat with the Cafe Master were an elderly couple inquiring about applying for a Capital One Discover card, an item that entitles cardholders to 50 percent off coffee purchases.
"Just think of it as being able to drink coffee for free every alternate day," said the Cafe Master.
One thing missing from this branch office was cash. Apart from what was in the Peet's Coffee tills, there was no sign of cash at all.
"The space looks so much cooler, cleaner," Antonio Wilson, Chicago cafe coach for Capital One, in an interview posted on The Financial Brand web site.
Wilson said in the Oct. 18 article that the new banking cafe, "makes you feel like you're inside a digital website with a cafe and friendly people from a community … Our goal as a company is to reimagine banking in a different way."
Furthermore, and quite understandably, according to Wilson, "The goal is to get people to come in for coffee or pastries. This is not a place where they feel like they are instantly going to have a banker in their face talking about our products. So initially, people use the site as a full-fledged cafe. Over time, though, they might bring up the conversation with our on-site bankers about our products."
Cafe Master or Cafe Coach, it matters little what Capital One branch managers call themselves. The point is that branch bank operations do have to change.
My most recent trip to our local Chase branch found the office essentially empty. While some banks are making an effort to transition branch offices into consultancies supporting wealth management programs, the impression customers get is that not much is going on.
The feeling of being "inside a digital website with a cafe and friendly people from a community," might not appeal to every banking customer, but in the conversations we overheard on Sunday, we didn't detect a single unfavorable remark.
One remarkable takeaway from the Capital One Cafe on the Pearl Street Mall: it had full-height sliding windows. These substantial openings let in not only the air but also the light, creating a sense of integration with all that was happening around the cafe — and further distancing this cool new place from what traditional banking has always represented. Take away the cash and you can literally bring down the walls.
Now I am a firm believer in the need for cash and the role it continues to play in our society.
But as often as I have written about the safety and security that comes with having cash on hand, I am not going to say that it is the absolute be-all, end-all, as I was once told.
Watching the inquiry from that elderly couple visiting Peet's Cafe reminded me that I cannot explain away the need for cash as "a generational thing."
Baby boomers may like their cash but they are also fully aware of the value of plastic.
In a hectic world, there are always people telling us we need more balance in our lives.
"Set aside time for more leisurely pursuits!" "Take up a hobby!" "Play golf or race cars" — whatever it takes to ease the stress of daily life.
I'm not going to evangelize for every bank to open a café, or some even more innovative alternative to the traditional branch. But without innovative thinking, there is little to commend about traditional branches, and the sooner they vanish from the landscape, the better.
Cash-related transactions — currency conversion, issuance of travelers checks — remember them? — breaking large bills, etc.) — might not figure as prominently in the branch of the future, but these are better suited for machines to perform. And I am comfortable walking up to a machine to initiate such transactions.
But an automated barista? Well, I still like small talk and chit-chat. And with that, I have worked up a thirst and will leave shortly for a coffee break. Or is it a bank break? No matter.
Whatever we end up calling these new outposts of banking, and whatever forms they take, integrating branch banking with coffee might very well end up being my "cup of tea!"
Richard Buckle / Richard Buckle is the founder and CEO of Pyalla Technologies LLC. He has enjoyed a long association with the IT industry as a user, vendor, and more recently, as an industry commentator.