NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wells Fargo (WFC) has experienced the same surge in mobile customers as the rest of the country's biggest banks, but it hasn't responded by shutting down local branches like some of its rivals.
In fact, the San Francisco-based bank has added 34 branches in the past two years, easily maintaining its lead in the total number of brick-and-mortar offices. Analysts are questioning, though, when and how much the company will eventually pull back.
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"Mobile banking is reducing the need for branches, but it's important to stress reducing the need, not eliminating the need," said Jefferey Harte, an analyst with Sandler O'Neill. "You still need to have branches, especially in how you interact with small businesses."
The number of local offices at the four largest U.S. banks -- JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo and Citigroup (C) -- has dropped almost 4% to 19,747 in the past two years. Mobile businesses at the companies expanded 32% in the same period.
At Wells Fargo alone, the number of mobile customers grew 19% last year to 15 million, making smartphones and tablets the company's fastest-growing channel, CFO John Shrewsberry said at an investor conference this week.
While mobile apps appear to pose a threat to traditional brick-and-mortar banking, the consumer shift to devices won't have an immediate impact on the number of branches because many customers prefer to handle big transactions such as home mortgages and auto loans in person, Shrewsberry said.
"Our activity in the branch has not slowed down; we had the same number of transactions in the stores in 2013 as we had in 2014," he said. That's reflected in the number of U.S. branches at Wells Fargo, which increased less than 1% to 6,345 in 2014, according to a report from the Federal Reserve.
"We do, incidentally, change our store footprint," Shrewsberry said. "We close stores every day, but we open new ones as well."
Citigroup, based in New York, has closed branches far more rapidly, shrinking 15% over two years to 865 in 2014, according to the Fed. Its mobile business soared 30% in that period, according to company data presented in February.