I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on the future of banking at the Economic Forum in Poland. The head of retail for a major retail bank predicted that within five years, his bank would not have any branches left. This was a remarkable statement, considering that in his country, 29% of banking customers still visit a branch once a month; in Warsaw, there’s a bank branch on every street corner. Across Europe, however, these numbers vary: Forrester’s recent research shows that only 7% of banking customers in the Netherlands visit a bank branch at least once a month, down from 9% in 2011, while in Spain, 49% of banking customers still visit a branch once a month.

Branches Will Not Disappear, But They Will Change.

What is going on here? Will bank branches disappear or will they transform themselves from transaction processing hubs to sales and advice centers? We think the latter because:

Branches are expensive.The elevated cost structure of branches — including their increasing staff expenses (i.e., hiring, training, and retaining them) and the security costs related to cash dispensing — is putting pressure on the cost/income ratio of many retail banks. This is the main reason why SNS Bank moved the cash-dispensing function out of its branches and replaced them with ATMs. But ther are more examples as stated by my colleague Benjamin Ensor in his blog about digital banking innovation in Turkey.

The popularity of self-service channels is growing. Online banking is still growing, but it is now incorporating personal financial management tools to provide a new interface for customers that gives them greater insight into their financial affairs. In addition, the usage of next-generation ATMs is growing

Mobile banking is taking off.Our research shows that usage of mobile banking at least once a month for routine tasks more than doubled in the Netherlands this year; it climbed to 14% from 6% last year. In our report The State Of Mobile Banking 2012, we explained that consumers are progressing from simply checking their account balances or locating an ATM to making bill payments or transferring money to other accounts via their mobile phones. 

Why Branches Will Still Exist.

 There are two reasons why Forrester thinks that branches will still be around in the years to come:

You still have to visit them on occasion.In many countries, the pace of development of new legislation is not in sync with customer adoption of new technology. For example, to open a bank account in many countries, you are still legally obliged to show up in person to prove your identification, despite any online onboarding functionality that may exist.

You still want to visit them. This also varies according to country and cultural habits but, in general, face-to-face appointments still matter for specific “big-ticket” banking matters like mortgage advice or investment decisions. At Forrester we think branches will continue to play an important role in these services.

eBusiness And Channel Strategy Teams; start digitalizing your branches?

Despite the rise of digital self-service channels, branches will continue to play an important albeit smaller role in the near future. However, you should think about what would happen to your current distribution model if the Dutch situation became a reality for you; are you ready? Your digital agenda should create a sense of urgency in your firm and encourage it to make the necessary investments — just as Australian bank ANZ did recently by investing $1.5 billion in a complete distribution overhaul. This involves not only redesigning the branches , including videoconferencing equipment, but also making them more “digital” by equipping them with devices to handle contactless or cardless transactions and investing in next-generation ATMs. Digital banking executives should lead the transition from a branch-centric to a more digitally focused approach. This means creating great customer experiences across multiple touchpoints including those "good old” (or should I say “brand new") digitally enabled branches.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the future of branches, so let me know — we don’t have much time to lose.