Charleston's CresCom Bank downsizes newest branch

CresCom Bank's new branch in The Market at Cane Bay Plantation is about a third of the size of a traditional branch.

David Morrow recalls the perilous weekly ritual he endured in the 1970s as a young banker assigned to a West Ashley branch. Each Friday, he was assigned to unlock the doors at 4 p.m., after the industry's then-traditional afternoon closing.

"I felt like I was taking my life in my own hands," he said.

Friday meant payday 40 years ago, and customers would rush to Morrow's branch near Ashley Plaza after clocking out to cash their checks before the bank closed for the weekend.

"People would be running over me to get to the tellers," he said. "The whole lobby would be full."

The emergence of direct deposit, ATMs and other electronic advances put an end to the weekly payday scrum more than a decade ago, forcing lenders to rethink how they set up their branches.

CresCom Bank's recently opened outpost reflects the new school of thought. The branch at Cane Bay Plantation measures just 1,200 square feet, or less than a third of the typical footprint.

And rather than occupying a standalone building along a high-traffic corridor, CresCom is jockeying for attention with other tenants in a Publix-anchored strip center in the rapidly developing area of Berkeley County.

"Those two things, in and of themselves, are somewhat different," said Morrow, president and CEO of the Charleston-based bank.

The shift away from spacious branches began years ago when companies like Charleston's First Federal, now South State Bank, started setting up financial services outposts inside supermarkets and other high-traffic retail stores to sign up new accounts.

Lenders that want to maintain independent storefronts are increasingly exploring other options as they expand or relocate, namely by slimming down and leaning more heavily on automation. Big companies like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase are already going down this road. Community banks are starting to follow suit.

"I think for the most part the trend is to go smaller because we just don't have the lobby traffic that we once had," Morrow said.

Anyone with a smartphone or an ATM card knows why.

"It's mostly because of online and mobile technologies, or even just the way we get paid," said Dave Martin, executive vice president and chief development officer at Cornelia, Ga.-based Financial Supermarkets Inc., which helps banks and credit unions design and build retail branches. "Ten or 15 years ago, the economy ran on people writing checks and getting paid with checks. These days, it's just the opposite. Most transactions now are electronic."

Yet a big part of the banking business still hinges on interpersonal relationships, Martin added. Even with all the high-tech bells and whistles available, a walk-in branch is still a critical calling card. Martin said surveys consistently find that a nearby brick-and-mortar office is either "one or two on the list of priorities" when consumers pick a bank.

"It's literally a challenge for banks to put people out there and have access and make contact. I call it shaking hands and kissing babies," he said. "We want to look for situations where we can keep our banks, our personnel, in traffic flows."

Morrow agreed that "customer touch" is important, particularly for a small community lender.

At its new office, CresCom is aiming to get in on the ground floor in the Cane Bay area, where homebuilders are proposing to add thousands of rooftops over the next couple of decades.

"If we are able to go into a strip center or a smaller location with lower expenses, it's going to allow us to be closer to the population, if you will," Morrow said.

Technology plays a big role. CresCom for instance, has installed "recyclers" at its new office that speed up the money-handling process while giving customers more deposit and withdrawal options. The teller-assisted automated devices also eliminate the need for a pricey vault, Morrow said.

"Our overhead is significantly less," Morrow said.

No one's saying bank branches are going away. But it's a fair bet that they're going to get smaller.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.