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Banks and the high street

As our banking behaviour heads online, major job losses will follow

New Statesman

So when was the last time you visited a bank branch? Now, be honest. The chances are that you are popping into your bank branch a lot less frequently than, say, three years ago, let alone 10 years ago.

Need to check your balance? Easy: go online. Pay a bill: ditto. Transfer cash between accounts, set up a direct debit - the answer is the same.

For many customers, the majority of everyday banking transactions can be conducted online or with a call centre or increasingly via smartphones and tablet devices such as the iPad.

This change in consumer behaviour is not yet apparent on the majority of UK High Streets but give it time.

Bank branch closures have been galloping along at a fair rate of knots in the past decade but until now have largely focused on small towns and rural communities.

Almost one-in-five UK bank branches have closed since 2000 with Barclays’ branch network for example down from 2,129 to 1,700; HSBC is down from 1,670 to 1,300 during the same period.

In the next decade, the High Streets of our larger towns will witness a major change in the number of bank branches and in branch design.

A relatively small number of flagship bank branches, vaguely along the lines of Apple Stores, will spring up in the larger cities.

But for the vast majority of us, the typical bank branch will be much smaller in scale, largely self-service with all cash held in ATMs as banks cotton on to a greater use of self-service terminals.

From a design standpoint, the branch will become more like a retail store.

Have you been in a newish branch of HSBC or Barclays recently-you get the picture?

Major job losses to come

Since the banking crisis really gathered pace post Lehman in 2008, job losses have tended to focus in the back office; investment banking roles have also been scaled back.

Staff performing IT and other support roles have been particularly badly hit in the past three years or so at the high street lenders.

Last year alone, HSBC announced plans to axe 30,000 positions around the world.

Lloyds said that it would eliminate 16,800 positions, about 1 in 6 of its total workforce.

Elsewhere, Barclays is dispensing with 3,000 roles and counting and it is the same story at major banks across Europe.

Last year, banking job cuts across Europe topped 70,000.

But job losses at the High street branch level have barely started.

Take RBS. It is one of the most enthusiastic cost cutters in the High Street – all of course part of its masterplan to “rebuild the bank”.

Last year, it managed to lose a mere 500 branch staff, reducing retail banking total employment from 28,200 to 27,700.

There is far worse to come.

If the bank branch is to prosper, the customer experience will have to change.

Virgin Money’s lounge vision, providing a comfortable space for customers to have a coffee, relax, check emails or charge mobile phones, demonstrates how a banking brand can attempt to restore trust, deliver something different and attract customers.

Another high street strategy entirely is being pursued Lloyds TSB, where a new branch design is designed to enhance the role of the bank within the local community.

In a number of its markets – but not yet in the UK - Santander has rolled out Santander Select outlets, upmarket branches providing a level of comfort not normally associated with a humble bank branch.

Nationwide Building Society is also investing with plans to refurbish its entire retail network of 700 outlets over the next two years.

That is about it for good news.