- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

There is a little something for everyone at 411 King St. in Old Town Alexandria. You can drop in for a cup of Joe, or surf the Web or watch the abig flat-screen television that dominates one wall.
You can also cash your paycheck, withdraw money from your savings account or take out a home equity loan.
After all, this is a bank.
Riggs Bank NA, the venerable Washington financial giant, has gone back to the future. Its new Tavern Square branch on King Street is designed to make customers feel at home, while also giving them access to the latest banking technology. This includes what Riggs executives say is the only automated-teller machine in the Washington area that doubles as a check-cashing machine.
"We're trying to create an environment where people come to visit us because they want to, not because they have to," said Mark N. Hendrix, executive vice president and chief marketing officer.
The Tavern Square center has opened at a time when other banks seem to be going out of their way to discourage customers from using their branches. In recent years, many banks have started to tack on service fees when a customer wants to conduct a transaction with a teller. Banks also charge customers now for services that used to be free, such as deposit and withdrawal slips.
"We're taking that way of thinking and turning it on its ear. The branch environment is one of our most precious assets," Mr. Hendrix said.
Riggs executives call the Tavern Square branch a "financial center." It also features an automated business depository for local merchants, touch-screen computers where customers can access their financial information from the bank's Web site, and private meeting rooms with videoconferencing equipment.
Riggs customers who use the gadgets, such as the check-cashing ATM, don't pay an extra fee.
Some of the technology is right out of "Star Wars." A Riggs logo "floats" above the glass table where customers write out their bank deposit slips. The logo the familiar golden Riggs eagle is actually a computer-projected hologram. Try to touch it, and your hand passes right through.
The most unique thing about the center, though, may be what it doesn't have: tellers.
Instead of a group of employees who sit behind bullet-proof glass, all employees at this location man a circular counter in the center of the room. From here, they can dispense cash like tellers do but they can also leave the area to help customers who need to open an account, take out a loan or invest in a mutual fund.
There is no glass that separates the customers from the employees. None is needed, Mr. Hendrix said, because all the money is kept in an "impregnable" machine that automatically dispenses the cash.
He declined to disclose security details, but said that the employees and the money are safe.
Each employee at the branch is trained to handle virtually every kind of customer transaction. Riggs has staffed the center with its most knowledgeable employees, according to director Michelle Patrick.
"For all the high-tech features we have here, it really does come down to the people. When you want to take out a loan, you may be able to do some preliminary research on the Internet, but when push comes to shove, you want to be able to come in and talk to someone face to face," she said.
Some banks in other cities have also embraced this philosophy, according to Tracey Mills, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association trade group.
In the Seattle area, for example, Washington Mutual Inc. has introduced branches that look like retail stores, with comfy chairs, contemporary music and casually dressed staffers.
After years of investing in online services, banks such as Riggs and thrifts such as Washington Mutual are beginning to pay more attention to traditional branch services, she said.
"More banks realize that customers want more choices. They want to be able to do banking online, but they also want to be able to visit their neighborhood branch," Ms. Mills said.
Riggs is considering opening about 12 similar branches in the Washington area, Mr. Hendrix said. He declined to say how much the company spent to open the Tavern Square location, but said that the cost was not that much more than what it incurs opening a traditional bank branch.
Each of the Tavern Square-style branches will be tailored to serve its own neighborhood, Mr. Hendrix said. Employees at Tavern Square keep dog biscuits on hand because Old Town Alexandria is a popular spot for dog walkers, but he said that a Gaithersburg branch might feature a children's playroom, if research shows there are a lot of stay-at-home moms in that community.
"We don't see this as a static environment. Some of the best practices here will migrate to other parts of the Riggs franchise," Mr. Hendrix said.
The bells and whistles at Tavern Square have captured the imagination of customers such as James B. Thomas III, who started doing business with Riggs after dropping in to check out the new branch a few weeks ago. Since then, he has opened an Individual Retirement Account and a money market account and gotten advice on a home rehabilitation business he wants to begin in Baltimore.
"I like the attitude of the people who work there. No one is out to intimidate you. They will sit down with you and talk one on one," Mr. Thomas said.

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