5 big trends in how you bank

How Americans bank is undergoing a lot of changes right now.

Free checking as we know it is becoming an endangered species, people are doing a lot more of their banking online, and smartphones and prepaid debit cards are taking off.

To get a sense of where consumer banking is headed, I spoke with Jim Marous, senior vice president of corporate development at New Control, a digital direct marketing agency serving financial institutions, and author of the excellent Bank Marketing Strategy blog.

Here are the five big take-aways.

1. Banks’ mobile and online banking features are more important than ever to your overall banking experience. Not only are banks pushing them as a way to serve customers much more cheaply than they can in branches, but customers are getting much more comfortable with the technology, especially when it comes to mobile banking. “You’re getting now beyond the early adopters,” Marous says.

That means that having a welcoming, easy-to-use, powerful suite of technology products will be important criteria for the way customers choose banks in the future. And, if you’re one of the many banking online or on your smartphone, you probably want to look over a bank’s technology offerings before signing up.

2. Banks’ networks of branches will probably decline. In the past, having a branch near their house or workplace was a big selling point for customers, but they’ve become less important because so much of customers’ interaction with their banks happens online, Marous says.

“Branch transactions are going down. Mobile and online transactions are going up. The comfort level that people have with not having to deal with their bank face to face is clear,” he says.

While banks still look to branches to help with servicing customers and marketing their products, it’s clear banks are looking to pare back their branch networks. The biggest reason why many banks haven’t yet may come down to the real estate market, he says.

“Banks still have massive amounts of real estate, and there’s no easy way to unload that,” Marous says. “What they’re looking at are ways to transform traditional branches through the use of new digital technology.”

3. That doesn’t mean mobile wallets will take off. Phone-based payments made at a store’s register using a near-field communications chip like those incorporated in Google Wallet and Isis may never take off because they don’t really give users anything they can’t get with a plain old debit card, Marous says.

“We get really excited about technology. But it’s important that it’s not technology for technology’s sake, but that it actually brings value to the consumer. It’s got to enhance the experience. It’s got to go to a different level for people to change their behavior,” Marous says.

4. The next big thing is putting it all together. There are some new mobile banking features on the way, such as the ability to use a mobile phone rather than a debit card to withdraw money from an ATM. But rather than adding a host of new features, the Holy Grail for banks right now is bringing all the features together in a usable package.

“If you can put all your value cards in one location in your banking app, and you can have your remote deposit capture and you can have your (personal finance management) and your noncard ATM accessibility tool and you have various budgeting tools, I think it’s the harnessing of all these features under one app that’s going to make mobile banking more powerful,” he says.

5. Prepaid cards are going to give banks a run for your money. The primary way many people experience their banks these days is through using their debit card. Once you add in the online and mobile banking tools some prepaid card providers are now offering customers, what you get doesn’t look that different from a typical bank account, Marous says.

Big banks that underestimate the appeal of prepaid cards do so at their peril, he says.

“Digital technology is now taking over what was once solely owned by the big banks,” Marous says.

What do you think? What’s changed about the way you bank in the last couple of years?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.