Taking a cue from fashion designers, tech companies and others, PNC has opened a temporary pop-up branch to introduce its brand and its digital services to a relatively unexplored market for the Pittsburgh bank: Atlanta. The latest test branch will remain open seven days a week for about three months and is meant to engage people off the streets.

"The pop-up branch is one way we are trying to give more [people] more exposure to PNC," says Todd Barnhart, executive vice president of branch banking at PNC. "If a [bank] is not out there testing and learning from its customer base today, it will quickly get left behind. …You can only go so far with a lab."

The pop-up branch, which is a 20x8 foot steel container, opened its doors on July 30 at Atlanta Station. Two specialists will use iPads to open new accounts, take loan applications and make referrals for mortgages and investments as well as demonstrate online and mobile services to passersby. The pop-up branch will come with an ATM that dispenses $1 bills, cashes checks and accepts deposits. The temporary building was customized for PNC. The decision to use a small steel structure will let PNC test a market where it has a limited presence of 60 branches, said the bank.

"It's not intended to be a permanent fixture," Barnhart says. "At this time of the year, the [Atlanta] area is very busy. The weather and other factors affect where the customers and prospects are."

The pop-up branch could also be moved to another location to grow out the experiment.

The concept is designed to engage people on the streets, where they work, live and play, and show off some of the bank's newer offerings, such as PNC Virtual Wallet and Cash Flow Insight for small businesses. It's not meant to replace a traditional bank.

"You don't need to build a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot branch to meet customers in every place you may [want] a physical location," he says.

PNC's test and learn branch concept trials are attempts at trying to answer a larger question that challenges banks nationwide: how to serve a variety of customer segments, including those that resist technology, and innovating at the right pace to accommodate a wide range of people's needs. "Finding the balance is hard," he says. "How do you figure out a service model to meet all needs?"

Pushing the bank to experiment are customer expectations that are coming from outside of the banking industry, he says.

PNC, a unit of the PNC Financial Services Group Inc., is in good company.

With branch transaction volumes dipping, banks nationwide have been testing new brick-and-mortar concepts that are tinier than their standard facilities (often upwards of 3,000 square feet) and come stocked with more advanced technology. Wells Fargo & Co. opened a mini-branch in Washington, D.C. in April as a test for entering an urban market, while Umpqua Bank started building smaller facilities beginning in 2006. Smaller branches range from about 1,000 to 1,500 square feet.

Meanwhile, mobile banking vehicle manufacturers have been building more stationary models than something only on wheels. MBF Industries Inc., for example, recently introduced a bank module that's designed to serve as a temporary branch to sit in a parking lot at a big box store for six months to one year.

"We felt there was a gap," John Baker, president of MBF Industries Inc., says. "Like all great ideas, we steal them: the ideas come from customers telling us what their issues and needs are."