If you happen to be a bank in the United States, you’ve got your work cut out for you. No, not in terms of making money: FDIC-insured banks’ Q4 net income rose $33.8 billion over the same period last year. The problem, of course, is image. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, financial services institutions suffered a 20 point drop in public trust in 2018.
It’ll take time for banks to regain the sort of consumer esteem they once took for granted, but one way that some of them are speeding the process is working on a kinder, gentler, and more accessible image.
And in the case of Wells Fargo, that means inviting people inside to chill out.
In a handful of its branches, the country’s fourth-largest bank is currently testing a cozy nook it’s calling the Express Center. The 1,500-square-foot spaces resemble a modernist living room equipped with ATMs. Visitors can conduct automated transactions on one side, then take a seat on an upholstered banquette where they can plug in a laptop or cell phone and work at a table. There’s an Express Center currently up and running in Utah, and two more slated for the Washington, D.C., market.
“Express Centers allow Wells Fargo to test a new format as a complement to our branches,” senior communications manager Hilary O’Byrne told Adweek, “and to empower our customers to take advantage of self-service digital banking tools and ATMs.”
The centers will surely encourage bank customers to transact business electronically, but the cushy seats and mood lighting will doubtless also prove more welcoming than your average ATM alcove, helping to position the branch as both more contemporary and accommodating.
Earlier this week, District of Columbia region president John Allen told the Washington Business Journal that the Express Centers were designed to be “more intimate” than the usual bank branch, a place where customers can bank in a “relaxed setting” and meet with Wells Fargo financial advisers. “It is the wave of the future,” he said.
That’s a good thing, too, since Wells Fargo has been busy distancing itself from its past.
Wells Fargo grabbed headlines in 2017 when it admitted to opening fraudulent accounts (as many as 3.5 million by the latest count) and overcharging customers on mortgages and auto loans. Earlier this week, Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan testified before the House Financial Services Committee and claimed that the bank had made significant strides in ameliorating the high-pressure culture that led to the abuses.
But though Sloan hailed “the progress we are making as we work to become the most customer-focused, efficient and innovative Wells Fargo ever,” lawmakers remained skeptical.
Wells Fargo’s Express Center test comes at a time when numerous physical retailers are offering more amenities for customers who walk in the door. Examples include a rooftop restaurant at Restoration Hardware’s New York flagship and a “hangout space” at the AT&T store in Seattle.
In 2016, Capital One made waves when it started opening “coffee shop banks” called Capital One Cafes, first in New York and then in other cities. Set up much like a regular coffee chain (complete with a counter that serves the Peet’s brand), the cafes feature ample seating where customers can meet with bankers in a more relaxed environment. Even if they don’t have an account at Capital One, people are free to come inside and order. “These cafes give customers a chance to come in and experience our brand,” the cafes’ director Shaun Rowley told the BBC at the time.
So it will be that customers can wander in to the Express Centers and experience Wells Fargo—that is, if the handful of locations in test now get the green light for a larger rollout. They’ll also have to bring their own coffee.