TIME

Here’s the One Stat Big Bank CEOs Are Freaking Out About

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NICHOLAS KAMM—AFP/Getty Images

A new survey shows that nearly a third of consumers haven’t actually set foot in a bank branch in six months, and one expert predicts that number could rise to 50% in just five years.

According to Bankrate.com, 30% of respondents to a new survey haven’t gone to a bank branch in six months. And more than two-thirds of those — 21% of respondents — haven’t set foot in a bank in the past year or more.

“I expect it will increase as more people migrate to online and mobile banking, in particular for routine transactions,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. As to where that number will be in another five years, he says, “Just to hazard a guess, something close to 50%.”

Technology is the driving force behind this shift. Today, people can do everything from transfer money to deposit a check with their phone, and more people than ever are conducting most of their basic banking electronically. An Ally Bank survey last fall found that roughly a quarter of consumers do most of their banking on a computer or tablet.

This is especially pronounced among younger users, Ally found. Almost two-thirds of those under the age of 35 rely primarily on ATMs, online and mobile banking. Bankrate’s data showed less of an age-specific split: Even among retirees, 28% said they hadn’t been to a bank in the past six months.

The other thing going on here is that customers of all ages today have gotten used to a DIY ethos: From booking a hotel room to buying a TV, we don’t need anybody to hold our hand (which is one reason why chains like Best Buy are having a tough time — we’ll educate ourselves with online user reviews rather than rely on what a salesperson tells us).

It’s a tough spot for banks to be in. On one hand, they want branches so they can give their brands visibility and cater to customers who still want to bank with a live human. Banks also want an in-person touch for selling higher-margin services like financial advice and retirement planning.

The flip side of that is the not insignificant overhead costs — in real estate and staffing — banks incur if they have a huge number of branches. Since the financial crisis, many of the nation’s biggest banks have reduced the number of branches they have to cut expenses. They’re also making new branches smaller, sometimes shaving off 1,000 square feet or more to save on operating costs.

Banks are doing more with the space they have by adding souped-up ATMs that can handle the kinds of transactions that used to require a live teller. Some, like the “virtual tellers” offered at some Bank of America locations, connect a customer to a live operator in a call center via a video link. Aside from letting banks save on costs, more robust ATMs let customers do their banking even when a traditional branch would be closed.

“[Branch] functionality will continue to evolve from a transaction center to a consultation center, where people go to meet with a banker about everything from saving for retirement, rolling over an old 401(k), or financing college education,” McBride says.

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