Orange County

Banking In-Person Could Become a Challenge in Orange County as Branches Close

Banking experts say more people opted into online services which meant fewer tellers were needed inside the bank.

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Customers were getting frustrated in Orange County as they showed up to deposit checks, only to find branches closed.

One such Bank of America branch in Laguna Niguel was temporarily closed after the company said it started consolidating branches and staffing during the pandemic.

Customers could use the ATM, but there is no one to take a deposit or cash a check.

"They don’t have much help anyways when they are open so it blows my mind that level of staffing can’t be maintained," customer Rene Carlis said.

Banking experts say there have been a lot of changes between the time everyone was mandated to stay at home, and now.

"Everybody is sort of getting back to normal. I don’t see why businesses aren’t doing the same thing," customer Fabrizia Gambino said.

They say more people opted into online services which meant fewer tellers were needed inside the bank.

Now banks are reevaluating how they operate.

Beth Mills of the California Bankers Association said the traditional style of having teller lines at a bank may be on its way out, and a "futuristic" kind of kiosk style with financial advisors on hand to assist customers may be in.

That idea might not sit well with all customers.

Alec Walker said he is a die-hard brick and mortar customer. He says he opened his account at Farmers and Merchants Bank in San Juan Capistrano when he was in high school.

"I know I’m safe when come in here. I know how the bank operates and I know people in the bank," he said.

When the pandemic hit, Long Beach-based Farmers and Merchants Bank sent 300 of its 800 employees to work from home. They still do. The bank tellers remained on site. Bank officials say they never closed any of their 25 branches or shortened their hours.

"We felt an obligation to employees," CEO Daniel Walker said.

According to the FDIC, 3,400 banks closed in 2020, but another 1,000 opened, mostly in areas where customers are less likely to bank online.

The California Bankers Association says 10 years ago they thought branches like the one in Laguna Niguel would be gone by now, but they say it is a continuing evolution.

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