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Banking when you want it

Weekend bankingBankers' hours: Everyone wants them, few will own up to them and no one can quite define exactly what they are.

To further blur this already fuzzy colloquialism, a few bold banks are actually open longer, including Saturdays and Sundays, much to the horror of the old guard. Time, it seems, is slowly ticking in favor of the consumer where bankers' hours are concerned.

In its 2001 retail banking survey, the American Bankers Association broke out weekend hours by branch and off-site location of institutions with more than $500 million in assets and those with less. The association discovered that Saturday banking is fast becoming the norm, with Sunday hours following at a cautious distance.

The trend definitely makes life easier for many customers. It's a good deal for financial institutions, too. The more time you spend with your local teller, the more time for you to discover the other services the bank sells.

Bigger banks, more open hours
Larger institutions are leading the way. Eighty-two percent of them open branch offices on Saturdays, with almost a quarter open on Sundays, too. About 6 percent of the larger bank's off-site locations, such as grocery stores, military bases and college and corporate campuses are open both weekend days. The extended hours may be available only at select branches or off-site offices.

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"Sometimes the hours are abbreviated," says ABA spokeswoman Julie Malveaux. "It may only be 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or something, but availability is there. Sometimes you see far greater hours when you get into what we call nontraditional locations, such as supermarkets. Other off-site locations might be retirement homes, military bases, retail locations, where the hours are usually limited to peak times."

Malveaux says that although there are no directly comparable figures from previous surveys, which polled three asset classes rather than two, anecdotally the numbers are increasing.

"Especially with the pace of people's lives now, people are so busy that they may not be able to get to the bank," she says. "When I was a kid, they closed at 3 p.m. Not so much anymore. There are locations that still close at 3, but they may have a drive-through window that stays open until 5 p.m. But more and more their lobbies stay open until 4 or 5 p.m., especially on a Friday."

This much is certain: With the exception of some small one- or two-bank towns around the country, 9-to-3 bankers' hours are fast disappearing from the American landscape.

Weekend warriors
Interest in extending that once-sacred workday increased significantly with the consolidation of big banking in the '90s and the subsequent growth of community banking in some regions.

Banks' extended lobby hours were a cost-effective way to improve customer service and help retain longstanding clients. Some community banks found that offering weekend hours gave them an easy-to-deploy edge against their larger competitors who may not have had the corporate flexibility or seen the need to do so. After all, the fixed costs (electricity, security, etc.) are already covered; add a couple tellers and you're good to go.

Two banks in the highly competitive New Jersey market have been weekend warriors for years. Commerce Bank has offered Sunday-to-Sunday banking since 1994. Today, most of its 185 branches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York remain open not only on Sunday, but also on Memorial Day, July 4 and the day after Thanksgiving. Its chief competitor, Summit Bank, now part of FleetBoston, responded with seven-day banking hours at all 52 of its off-site locations.

The movement is spreading. BankAtlantic introduced seven-day banking to Florida in March. Metropolitan Bank & Trust, a Cleveland-based financial institution, now opens its doors seven days a week, as well.

"Sunday banking offers something to set us apart, something a little bit different in the area," says Metropolitan marketing associate Laura Kovach. "We have a total of 24 branches, we're a little bit on the smaller side, so something like this gives us sort of an edge."

It's not just hurried business people who appreciate Sunday hours.

"For instance, in our Jewish communities, they celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, so having a branch open on Sunday provides another outlet for them," says Kovach. "It's just good customer service."

The stop-and-shop lobby
Extending workdays doesn't mean the money-counters aren't keeping a close eye on the cost of weekend hours.

"Extended hours are more of a retention tool, more of a service. We don't really open more accounts or do better sales on that day," Kovach says. "We look at the numbers of customers who actually stop in that day to do their banking and then associate that with the cost of staffing the branch to see if its worthwhile."

And banks these days are interested in more than just warehousing your money. Longer days may help with this goal.

The passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act of 1999 allowed banks to sell other products, such as insurance and securities. Bankers want you to stick around and browse a little in hopes you'll buy their expanding line of financial goods and services.

Will banks ultimately follow retailers into weekend hours in pursuit of new customers for their growing product line?

"They may," admits Malveaux. "Only time will tell, but that time won't be very long. It won't take 10 years to figure out if that is something that needs to be done."

Who needs a lobby anyway?
There is another consumer current running counter to all of this: online banking.

Many current customers may appreciate the convenience of being able to bank with a live teller on the weekend, but chances are their kids will neither want nor need the option.

"It will be interesting," admits Kovach. "With how much banking is moving toward online and telephone banking, there are fewer and fewer people coming into the branch. I think it will really depend on what people are coming into the branch for. People still have to physically come into the branch to open up most products, but after they're opened, how much contact is there after that?"

Malveaux agrees that expanded lobby hours may well pass with the baby boomer generation.

"The next generation may not need extended hours. They work entirely online and are more comfortable with credit and debit payment than check or cash transactions," she says.

At which point, the few bankers left in an office would presumably find themselves back working bankers' hours.

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida.

-- Posted: May 8, 2002

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