Friday Musings: Should Buy Barnes & Noble and Partner with a Direct Bank

image One of the best things to happen in 20 years of living in northeast Seattle was the opening of Barnes & Noble in our local shopping center, replacing the tired old department store, Lamonts

For this family of readers, the massive, two-store B&N has continued to be a cherished destination for more than a decade. When the boys were young, it was Tuesday night story time (with free fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies). Later, it was a place to spend their birthday money on new books, music and DVDs. And I’ve personally bought at least a couple hundred items there over the years. 

But I’m also an fanatic and buy most everything I can there nowadays. My wife and I (though not the boys yet) are ebook addicts, reading on our iThings via the Kindle app (note 1).  So, I’m more than a little concerned about our neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Printed books and other media, along with CDs/DVDs, are on their way out, so is there any hope of keeping the neighborhood B&N in business?  

Musing 1: B&N Rescued by
Here’s my dream: Amazon buys Barnes & Noble, perhaps partnering with a major financial services brand (note 2), and turns it into a fully online/mobile channel-integrated super store. Amazon’s major online departments could be recreated within the massive B&N footprint: the book store, of course, electronics, music, movies/TV, toys, home and garden, shoes, and so on.

High-volume goods would be stocked and available for purchase. Consumers could also pick up goods ordered via online/mobile enabling same-day delivery for many items. But the main focus of the store would be self-service online shopping. Shoppers in the shoe department, for example, could see and hold various styles, but would place an order through a mobile app or online kiosk, to get their specific size delivered to the store or their home. The concept would be to showcase a wide variety of items without incurring the costs of holding massive inventory within the store.

Musing 2: Amazon Financial Centers Installed within the Super Stores
Though I’m not a huge fan of branches, they still have their place. Amazon could turn a corner of the store into a financial services center. The center would feature deposit-taking ATMs to handle those pesky checks and would have a financial specialist or two on hand to help customers with mortgages and other high-touch financial needs (no transaction activity, however).

Financial center staffers could also be incented to help drive users to co-branded Amazon loyalty programs with online and in-store sales diverted from credit cards to ACH/debit, saving the company tens of millions in annual interchange. Financing big-ticket items could also create a massive new revenue stream for the retailer.   

While the financial operations could be private-branded under the Amazon name (e.g., Sears), it would probably make more sense to partner with a major direct financial services company such as ING Direct, Citibank, or Schwab, or an international giant such as Standard Chartered, Barclays, or OCBC which would gain a major footprint in the United States with 700+ strategically located mini-branches (notes 3, 4).

It’s not going to happen, Amazon is a Wall St. darling as a pure-play ecommerce company, but for the sake of the neighborhood, I wish it would.


Notes on the the business case (see huge caveat, note 5): 
In this simplistic proposal, I’m ignoring a zillion issues which are beyond the scope of this blog. For example, would existing B&N leases even support Amazon’s product mix? But to an outsider, it looks enticing for the following reasons.

  • B&N is currently valued at less than $900 million and change after a recent run-up after it announced that it was for sale (note 6). In comparison, Amazon’s is worth $62 billion today. As a matter of fact, its market cap has grown $7 bil since I started this post a couple weeks ago, enough to buy seven Barnes & Nobles. Clearly, Amazon could afford it, though whether shareholders would support it is another matter.
  • Merging with B&N would take out one of Amazon’s major competitors, theoretically allowing the company to boost prices. With $25 billion in revenues, a quarter-percent (25-basis point) price increase at Amazon would add $60 million to the bottom line.
  • In-store pickups could help reduce Amazon’s massive shipping expense. 
  • And while B&N isn’t currently generating a profit, it was operating cash-flow positive during the past 12 months (+$120 million).
  • Amazon could partner with other direct commerce companies to spread the risk. The financial services mini-stores alone could bring in $100 million annually assuming a $10,000 per month rent/rev share per location (note 3). And other retailers might also be interested in mini-stores within the big Amazon box: Microsoft, Dell, Sony, HP,, and so on.   

Other notes:
1. While I consume almost all fiction digitally, I still like to buy printed business books to keep on the reference shelf. I find it easier to remember they exist that way. Even my semi-Luddite brother has jumped on the Kindle bandwagon at the new $139 price point.  
2. I mostly added this to justify posting it here. Ironically, this strategy is almost the polar opposite of our Online Banking Report: Creating the of Financial Services originally published in 1998 then updated in 2000 (more recent summary here). 
3. I’m not including another 600+ B&N locations on college campuses, because many of those would not be a good fit for financial services and/or the schools would not allow a competing financial provider on campus.
4. Adding financial stores to Barnes & Noble retail locations could be problematic if the leases prohibit banking operations due to exclusive deals with other banks in the shopping center.
5. Caveat: Although I do have an MBA, my balance-sheet reading skills are quite rusty. And I don’t have an ounce of retailing experience (outside banking), so please realize this is primarily conjecture on my part. 
6. There’s also another billion in long-term debt and other obligations.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic Branch

imageToday’s Financial Brand post by Jeffry Pilcher is the best article I’ve ever read on branch design. If you are building or remodeling mega-branches, it’s an absolute must-read.

But as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about that old saying about the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure, IF valuable customers continue to visit branches, and IF those customers are willing to be pitched products as they rush through their errands, and IF you train/compensate your staff to effectively sell, and IF you can still afford the half-mil or more it costs to run each one, then by all means build U-shaped branches to maximize sales interactions, hire world-class greeters, and install engaging merchandising displays along the snaking path to the teller windows in the back.

imageBut no matter how many design awards your branch receives, it won’t change the megatrend: the future of financial services is outside the branch. Nearly every profitable business line is already sold direct: credit cards, prepaid cards, insurance, mutual funds/investments, car loans, mortgages, commercial loans, and, more recently, even savings/CDs and checking accounts.

And now that ATMs, PC scanners and mobile phones handle deposit-taking better than the friendliest teller (note 1), the traditional branch has no business case. Sure, spacious and attractive branches in high-traffic areas are great imagemarketing tools. They reinforce your brand, show your stability, and I’ll have to admit, they are mighty convenient for dropping off paper checks and getting free cookies.

But that model is too expensive. I agree with Mr. Pilcher that branches are far from dead. But the future branch is likely to look more like an Edward Jones or Allstate office, not the thing of beauty shown here. There may even be more of them (Edward Jones tallies more than 10,000), but they won’t look like these pictures. 

The bank/CU branch will morph into small storefronts sprinkled throughout the community staffed with a few people heavily incented to produce revenue. Routine transactions will be handled by (mostly) self-service ATM/kiosks. Unlike the Titanic, the sinking of the mega-branch model will be slow. And the ultimate brick-and-mortar mix will be much more complicated than my simplistic take on it here. But branches will shrink, tellers will be phased out, and the online/email/mobile channels will handle just about everything. Just ask USAA

1. Remote/ATM deposit capture is superior to most teller-assisted deposits because you not only save a trip to the branch, but also get immediate real-time confirmation that the deposit has been properly recorded. You can make the deposit earlier (as soon as you receive the check), you get a copy of the image to store indefinitely, and in the case of remote capture, you can even hold on to the original check as proof of deposit.
2. We wrote about the Demise of the Branch in 2006 (OBR subscription required).  
3. Photo credits: EHS Design.

Bank of America Implies that Branch Network Could Shrink 10% in Next Three Years

imageIn what will surely be the first in a long string of similar headlines, the top of  yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Money & Investing section declared:

BofA Plans to Cut 10% of Branches

The article, which has been picked up by nearly 100 news sites in the past 24 hours, reported that Bank of America was planning on reducing the size of its 6,000-branch network. There were no details on timing or whether the bank was retreating from certain markets or was simply pruning overlapping branches broadly.

But in later interviews with bank execs, it sounded like Bank of America was merely predicting a gradual shrinkage in its branch network over the next three years, and had no firm plans for specific closures. Here’s a followup quote from president Liam McGee as reported by Charlotte NPR station WFAE:

“I think <CEO Lewis> was asked a question, ‘Boy, could there be x-percentage less branches in the next few years?’ And he was just saying, ‘Yeah, could be, and if there was it would be in magnitude of this as opposed to a much higher number.'”

McGee says the bank is going through a 3-year evaluation process that could result in fewer branches, but that no particular number is targeted. He says customers’ changing habits are driving the process.

What I found more interesting in the debate were some of the numbers the bank tossed out showing the growth of it’s non-branch delivery:

  • Nearly 50% of deposits are made in ATMs…up amazingly from 33% six months ago. The bank didn’t say whether this was NUMBER of deposits or VALUE of deposits, but it’s likely the former. Also, it’s unclear if remote deposits made via scanner are included in the total. That new technology is making a significant dent in branch-based deposits at many financial institutions.
  • 2.8 million customers are now using the mobile channel which was introduced in mid-2007. That’s an average of about 120,000 new customer per month. However, growth appears to have accelerated slightly this year. In early Feb, the bank said it had 2 million mobile banking customers; so in the past 5.5 month, growth has been just under 150,000 new users per month.   
  • The bank has a 60% market share in online bill payment; an amazing penetration for a bank with 12% of the country’s deposits. 

1. See our Online Banking Report: The Demise of the Branch (April 2006), for more on the long-term trends in the mix of branch and alternative delivery.

Merging Online and Offline Channels via Twitter

image I’ve gradually come around to Twitter as both a communications and research tool. A year ago it could have been dismissed as a niche platform for a few hundred thousand hyper-social geeks. But now that adoption has tipped, with 14 million users last month (see chart), the power of the network is opening up new opportunities.

My favorite: Tweeting bakeries (note 1). A British company, Poke, has developed a little box that sits behind the counter at a bakery.  Whenever a new batch of rolls or pastries is ready to serve, the baker turns a dial to the specific item and presses a button. That automatically sends a pre-programmed Tweet to the bakery’s followers. It’s called, appropriately, BakerTweet.

Bank opportunities: Unless you merge operations with a bakery (maybe not such a bad idea), financial institutions have nothing nearly as exciting to Twitter about. However, there are useful items a branch could broadcast to its followers:

  • When the drive-thru lane was empty (or vice versa)
  • When branch queues have disappeared (or vice versa)
  • When platform officers are available
  • When specific specialists are available in the branch (e.g., home loan officer, small business banker, investment specialist)
  • When certain popular employees are working (could be tweeted to just the followers of that person)
  • Branch special offers
  • Local community events and specials

And if you really want to gain some global recognition, enable payments for the baked goods via Twitter (see TwitPay). For example, users could respond back to the bakery’s tweet with:

@bakerytweet hold 2 chocolates pay $2.45 via @twitbank

Assuming users were registered at BakeryTweet and Twitbank, that’s all it would take to order and pay for two warm rolls (note 2).


1. Kudos to Springwise for finding this idea here
2. Yes, there are fraud, privacy and reliability issues to work through, but as long as purchases are kept under a certain floor, the exposure would be minimal. 
3. See also the Harvard Business article last week (9 April 2009) by John Sviokla, Twitter: A Marketer’s Duct Tape.

Beehive Credit Union Uses Blogging Platform to Create Custom Websites for Each Branch

image Salt Lake City's Beehive Credit Union is launching eight microsites, one for each of its eight branches. The sites are based on a blogging template and are nearly identical.

As you can see in the screenshot below, the only differences are:

  • Branch name and photo across the top
  • Branch name inserted into various headlines and copy throughout the site
  • Contact Us page lists only the specific branch

URLs are based on the main site, with the branch/city name in place of the "www":

What it means
The Beehive sites illustrate two trends: 

  • Developing a full Web presence from a blogging template
  • Creating custom websites for geographic areas or individual branches

While I like what Beehive is doing, I hope they take it to the next level and create a more customized experience by letting branch employees add content themselves or at least control some aspects of the microsites.

The CU is working with Listpipe for content creation. Thanks to Jeffry Pilcher for the find.

Beehive South Jordon site (1 July 2008)

Beehive Credit Union South Jordan site

Beehive Taylorsville site (1 July 2008)

Beehive Credit Union Salt Lake City Taylorsville site July 2008

The Five Habits of Inefficient Delivery: Are Bank Branches Really Big, Expensive Security Blankets?

Ron Shevlin, the Forrester alum who blogs at Marketing ROI and occasionally at NetBanker (posts here), has been on a roll recently with a number of thought-provoking posts that take on the conventional wisdom we hear in meetings, press releases, and other soundbites picked up by the press.

Earlier this month, Ron challenged some of the statements made in the press implying that the downfall of NetBank was caused by its online delivery strategies (here). That initial post led to an interesting discussion culminating in this gem (here) where he takes on the whole notion that banks MUST have branches to acquire new accounts, concluding (words in parenthesis are my additions to show context):

"The inability of the Internet to supplant the branch as the acquisition channel of choice (so far) has very little to do with the inherent superiority of the branch, and everything to do with the (current) inferiority of the online channel." 

And my favorite, this zinger:

In effect, bank branches are just big, expensive security blankets.

Inspired by his post, I've come up with what I'll call the "5 Habits of Inefficient Delivery" (see note 1). 

Habit #1: Customers go to branches to solve service problems.

Expensive solution: Build more multi-million dollar branches to house expensive service reps to sooth frustrated customers. 

Better solutions: (A) Improve the product/service so there are fewer problems; (B) Solve customer problems online in near real-time, not "within 24 to 48 hours"; (C) Empower online support reps to solve problems without forcing the customer to make an hour-long trek to a branch.

Habit #2: Customers go to branches to apply for new accounts.

Expensive solution: Build more multi-million dollar branches and staff them with well-compensated sales agents to transcribe applications hand-delivered by customers.

Better solutions: (A) Develop a killer online sales process that helps customers choose the right option; (B) Provide a user-friendly application with 24/7 online support and solid guarantees. 

Habit #3: Customers feel more comfortable with a bank that has a large branch presence.

Expensive solution: Build more multi-million dollar branches or what Ron calls, "big, expensive security blankets."

Better solutions: (A) Trust your customers and treat them right at every opportunity, and they'll remain loyal no matter how many branches you operate; (B) Keep prices competitive, i.e., no more 10 basis points of interest for a savings account (see here). 

Habit #4: Customers like to use the branch to deposit paper checks.

Expensive solution: Build more multimillion-dollar branches that serve as human-powered ATMs.

Better solution: Until paper checks disappear, use remote-deposit capture, envelope-free (image) ATMs, and instant credit for mailed deposits such as Pennsylvania School Employees Credit Union's (PSECU) Upost@Home (previous coverage here) (see note 2).

Habit #5: Customers go to branches because they are there.

Expensive solution: Build more multimillion-dollar branches to stay within a few minutes' drive or walk for most of your customers

Better solution: Make the online and telephone customer experience so phenomenal and complete that no one misses the branches as they close and consolidate


1. For more information, see Online Banking Report, "The Demise of the Branch"

2. On a related note, see PSECU's "Go Branchless" campaign (here)

Is the United States Overbranched?

Union Bank's locations in Lincoln, NE <> Well, not so much when compared with other Western countries; however, the bigger question is whether they are all overbranched. Only Singapore, with 111 branches per million inhabitants, is in a good position cost-wise. Italy and Switzerland, with more than 700 branches per million, have their work cut out for them as they reduce the number of branches from a level twice as high per capita as the U.S. total of 372 per million.

At our sister publication Online Banking Report, we've predicted that the total number of branches in the United States will fall by about 40% during the next 20 years (see note 1). Given expected population growth, that equates to about half the number of branches per million (using the BIS baseline, our projection is that the U.S. would have fewer than 200 branches per million in 2025).  The reason for the decline is the rise of the out-of-branch channels: phone, online, ATM, and soon mobile (see note 2).

Here's some interesting data from the Bank for International Settlements <>. Click on the table below to read the five-year data trend. The 270-page PDF is located here.

Interestingly, of the 13 countries covered in the report, only Hong Kong, Singapore, Sweden and The Netherlands have fewer branches per capita than the United States. We have almost 25% less than the 13-country average. Only two countries showed an increase in the 2001-2005 period: Italy which added 1,500 branches and the United States which grew about 6,000 (see note 2).

Here's the list in order of most branches to fewest per million inhabitants:

1. Italy                 >>> 762
2. Switzerland   >>> 701
3. France            >>> 649
4. Belgium          >>> 566
5. Germany        >>> 561
6. UK                     >>> 472
<< <AVERAGE >>> 471
7. Japan               >>> 459
8. Canada             >>> 441
9. U.S.                    >>> 372
10. Sweden          >>> 295
11. Netherlands >>> 270
12. Hong Kong   >>> 249
13. Singapore     >>>  111


1. See Online Banking Report's Decline of the Branch (#128), published May 2006.

2. Tom Brown's been writing about the trouble some banking chains have been having with the performance of their new de novo branches (see here).  

3. In 2001 and 2002, the U.S. branch total in the BIS data-set excluded credit unions.