Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bank plans to open branches in Fairfield and Norwalk, its first offices in Connecticut, later this month.

After Aug. 20, bankers’ hours won’t mean what they used to, at least not in Fairfield County. Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bank – which prides itself on convenience and is known for seven-day-a-week, extended-hour banking – plans to open two branches then, one in Fairfield and one in Norwalk. And Commerce’s first reach into Connecticut could prompt established banks with traditional hours to rethink their ideas of customer convenience.

Commerce Bank has succeeded in most of the markets it has entered, and has often prompted existing banks in those markets to change some strategies, according to Kevin Timmons, a senior analyst with New York-based CL King & Assoc. Commerce’s target customer base is fairly broad, so the bank could tempt customers from other area banks. The competition in the area includes national banks like Bank of America, regional banks like Waterbury-based Webster Bank and Bridgeport-based People’s Bank and local banks like Fairfield County Bank Corp.

Commerce’s long hours and the customer convenience they bring often will prompt some of the banks that already exist in the area to slightly change their strategies, according to Timmons. He added that he has not seen many financial institutions match exactly what Commerce does, but many banks will increase their hours slightly, adding an hour here and another there.

“You’ll often see somebody react by extending hours,” he said.

But most banks, he added, will wait before changing their hours to see what their customers do.

“Many of the banks will probably wait to see what kind of reaction they get from their customer base,” Timmons said.

The 31-year-old bank’s fiercest competition likely will come from Bridgeport-based People’s Bank, which has a long history in Fairfield County and has branches in Super Stop & Shop locations across the state. Like Commerce Bank’s branches, the People’s supermarket branches are open seven days a week.

‘Brand Strategy’

Commerce Bank announced its intentions to expand into Fairfield County late last year. The bank originally planned to open the Fairfield branch in the spring, but now has Aug. 20 scheduled as the opening date for both its Fairfield and Norwalk branches.

The construction of the two buildings is complete. All of Commerce Bank’s branches – which number more than 300 and are spread across metropolitan New York, Long Island, metro Philadelphia and New Jersey – are similar in design, according to spokesman David Flaherty.

“It’s all part of our brand strategy,” he said.

The buildings are all located on high-traffic roads – the Fairfield location is at 1715 Black Rock Turnpike and the Norwalk branch at 380 Main Ave. – and have large drive-through spaces.

Commerce will start promoting the two Fairfield County locations over the next several weeks with direct mail, Flaherty said. The banks also have a tradition of throwing block-party types of events with tents, food and music during their grand openings.

Each of the new branches will employ 20 to 25 people, all hired locally, Flaherty said.

One of the biggest challenges for the bank in Fairfield County is establishing name recognition, he noted.

“This is a new community for us, so [the challenge is] building awareness,” Flaherty said.

But the bank’s customer-centric approach has made it successful, Timmons said.

“They’ve almost always proven to be very successful,” he said.

Commerce’s next Connecticut branches are projected to open in 2006 in Darien, Stamford and Greenwich, according to Flaherty.

The bank’s expansion into Fairfield County will be a “natural extension” of its current branch network, Flaherty said after the bank’s announcement last year. Bank executives hope Commerce’s foray into Fairfield County will be as successful as its previous expansion into Westchester County in New York. The demographics in the two counties are similar, according to John Tolomer, Commerce Bank’s senior vice president and marketing manager.

“Fairfield County’s demographics fit with the Commerce model,” he said in December. “We think our banking model will be well received.”

In addition to the expansion into Fairfield County, the bank will expand within its metro New York and metro Philadelphia footprint by adding about 1,800 new positions annually, the bank announced last year. The bank also announced then that it plans to eventually build 25 new branches in the county, starting in 2005 with five “prototype stores” in Fairfield, Darien, Norwalk, Greenwich and Stamford.