Why are credit unions opening new branches in the midst of a pandemic? After all, health officials have warned that the coronavirus could worsen – much worse – during the fall and winter months, which could lead to new stay-at-home orders and force credit unions to close. their lobbies again.
In addition, the enormous costs of opening, staffing and maintaining new branches despite the many economic uncertainties of COVID-19 and the expected long-term effects can put more strain on the finances of any credit union, as many more and more members are choosing digital banking options over branch visits.
Nonetheless, some credit union executives have said they believe opening new branches in the COVID era is an acceptable business risk that should pay off in the long run through service to their current and future members. Another benefit is that the coronavirus has accelerated the urgency to push forward digital banking projects that credit union leaders say improve the experience for branch members.
“I think the two big factors we will continue to focus on when we think about expansion are: how do we make it easier for members to deal with us – how do we do that from a branch perspective and how are we doing that from a technological point of view? Raf Olazagasti said. He is executive vice president of Maryland’s largest credit union, the $ 4.2 billion SECU in Linthicum.
In August, the SECU opened its 23rd branch in Clarksville, Maryland, which has been publicly promoted as a financial center for the “new normal” pandemic. To ensure the safety of members and employees, the 2,125 square foot branch was designed with plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizer dispensers, social distancing signs and private meeting rooms.
In addition, the branch houses two ATMs, an ATM and a large touch-screen computer allowing members to perform banking transactions online. The drive-thru is also equipped with an ITM and an ATM.
“It’s really up to the members to determine their comfort level and how much they want to engage with us inside or outside the branch,” he said. “We want to be able to meet our members wherever they want to meet us, whether it’s virtually, whether it’s in a branch, or sometimes in the branch and sometimes virtually, we want to be able to provide that. This is why physical branches are always so important to us because people consider their primary financial institution to be in their community.
However, because there is no way to determine how long the coronavirus will last, how severe its second wave can be during the fall and winter months, and when a safe and effective vaccine will finally arrive. , the future for everyone remains very uncertain, which may discourage some members or potential members from visiting branches.
Because some members may not feel comfortable doing business at a branch for the foreseeable future, SECU has invested a lot of resources in the development of a virtual financial center that will allow members to engage virtually with advisors to open a new membership or account, apply for a loan or credit card, or manage any type of service, including complex service needs.
“We want to provide this convenience, after or before business hours, to our members and, at the same time, provide a safe option for members who simply prefer to do their business from home,” he said.
In July, the $ 9.5 billion Alaska USA Credit Union in Anchorage opened what it promoted as branches designed for its members in Renton, Wash., and Apple Valley, California.
“Obviously we’re not where we thought we would be last November or December, and so watching what we do with our branches is something that has to evolve no matter what, and COIVD was just one thing. huge that had an impact, ”said Elizabeth Pavlas, executive director of retail financial services in Alaska, United States. “We designed these branches so that our members could have a choice in how they use the branches, and they gave us more flexibility in how we interact with members. “
In addition to improved cleaning and disinfection protocols, as well as the application of mask mandates where and when applicable, the Alaska USA branches offer a welcoming open floor concept with a variety of options. headquarters and workplaces that not only facilitate social distancing, but also engage members.
“It’s really more of a collaborative space, and we think many people will better find the relationship member-owners should have with their credit union,” said Shannon Conley, senior vice president of credit union administration. branches for Alaska USA. “A lot of people do most of their transactions online, so we’ve designed the branches accordingly. This means improving self-service options and showing members how they can use the Alaska USA app to do just about anything they can do at a branch. If someone comes to deposit a check, we want to teach them how to deposit with their phone – to go beyond helping them with their initial request.
$ 2.8 billion Ascend Federal Credit Union in Tullahoma, Tennessee currently operates 28 branches and 62 ITMs. In June and August, the credit union opened two new branches and plans to open two more branches in October and December.
To efficiently operate all of its current and future ITMs, Ascend has opened what it says is the largest ITM member service center in mid-Tennessee. The new center is the headquarters of 45 employees who answer service calls when members use ITM’s two-way video monitor across the branch network.
“For the most part, it’s gratifying to see how well everyone has embraced this new technology, but when we extended our hours of service from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, it was huge because that members have seen the benefits of these ITMs, ”said Tracy Moore, vice president of retail delivery for Ascend. “It was before COVID, and then when COVID hit we had so many people who didn’t want to go into branches or maybe we had to close our lobbies on certain days. But our ITMs have always been open and this is another positive advantage of ITMs.
Additionally, Moore said the ITM Center has helped lower overall operating costs by centralizing and streamlining processes, which also enables a more efficient member experience.
ITMs also allowed the $ 605 million Sun Federal Credit Union in Maumee, Ohio to keep some of its branches open during the initial coronavirus shutdown earlier this year.
In addition, Sun Federal announced the opening of a new 1,400 square foot branch in Perrysburg, Ohio, and now operates 13 branches in Buckeye State and Pennsylvania. In its announcement, the credit union showcased ITM technology as the heart of the new branch that will enable social distancing while keeping the personal touch in serving members.
“Where we got this [ITM] technology in place, we didn’t have to close the branch, ”said Dave Wilde, vice president of marketing and business development for Sun Federal. “We’ve actually accelerated part of the ITM deployment so that every branch has ITMs. “
To strengthen social distancing measures inside Sun Federal branches, furniture was placed on wheels so members and employees could hold meetings at safe distances. The credit union also provides styluses so members and employees do not have to place their fingers on touch screens.
“We want everyone to feel welcome and safe in the new branch,” said Sun Federal President and CEO Brian Hughes. “We say it’s the perfect balance between comfort, technology and safety.