SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE, Va. - Walk in to cash a check, and you're greeted at the door. Pour a cup of Starbucks coffee and sit down in one of several sofa-like chairs. Watch TV or flip through Forbes' Guide to Markets.
This isn't your grandmother's bank. It's a new Bank of America branch at Smith Mountain Lake.
The branch opened in December, the only Bank of America nearby with the Charlotte, N.C., bank's new retail-like design. The "store," Bank of America Corp.'s new name for the branch, is one of 500 that it is rolling out nationwide in the next two years.
"It's designed more to be a retail environment," said manager Eric Valentine. "The idea is to greet everybody who comes through the door."
That's not all. Tan carpets open up a wide area that resembles a mini Barnes & Noble. Customers can check their bank accounts online at one computer kiosk or read a financial book or magazine, such as Smart Money, displayed on a shelf against the back wall. Two conference rooms in the back provide space where customers can chat with bank representatives about financial matters.
Nationwide, more banks are offering coffee, television and even children's play areas in branches - features that they believe entice customers to visit.
Since the advent of online banking, ATMs and other technology that doesn't require customers to walk into a branch, banks are finding that there's still a large market that appreciates face-to-face interaction.
"There has been a resurgence in branch activity for banks of all sizes and a realization that the physical location is important and what it looks like and feels like," said Bruce Whitehurst, executive vice president of the Virginia Bankers Association in Richmond.
A trip to the bank offers more nowadays, including advising and brokerage services, than just cashing a check or making a deposit, Whitehurst said. It's a "financial center."
Banks are capitalizing on a market of people who will come inside and stay awhile.
"The buzz phrase is experience marketing," he said. "Barnes & Noble is becoming an experience. You don't just go to see about buying a book, you go because they have a cafe. In the banking industry, it's really no different."
One notable example on the West Coast is UmpquaBank, based in Portland, Ore. It brews its own brand of coffee and offers yoga classes and movie nights.
At some Roanoke Valley Wachovia branches, a representative greets customers at a front counter and directs them to where they need to go in the branch for assistance. At the Wachovia at Tanglewood Mall, there is a television near the teller line for customers to watch while they wait. The televisions generally are tuned in to news channels, said Dee O'Donnell, retail banking director for Southwest Virginia.
Customers also can call Wachovia's customer service center using phone kiosks located at a corner of the branch. At some of SunTrust Bank's new or redesigned branches, the bank may add front desks as host stations where an employee can greet and direct customers.
For the last several years, the bank has placed more emphasis on representatives greeting customers at the door, answering questions and directing them.
"People want to be recognized that they're there," said Sheri Minnix, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc.
Valentine said customers are surprised when they walk into the Bank of America for the first time. "When people walk in here, they're like 'Wow!'" he said. "It does help with competition" with other banks.
"It's a unique environment, there's no question," said Pete Lewis after pouring a cup of coffee at the bank.
Even long teller lines are a thing of the past. At this Bank of America, customers wait in an area that weaves to the side of the teller counters. With kiosks and desks placed around the store, there's no space for a line to stretch across the room.
"We try not to have more than five people in line," Valentine said.
The trend, a type of branding that banks have borrowed from bookstores and other retailers, should continue as long as customers want it. Whitehurst said changes will occur gradually because of the investment that banks have to make for building and renovation.
Banks spend an average of $2 million on redesigns, with banks on the West Coast starting the trend, said Tracey Mills, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.
They typically don't make a change unless they plan to stick with it, she said.
"Banks don't change their look as often as other retail outlets," Mills said. "They don't jump into a trend without really looking at it."
Information from: The Roanoke Times