Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
With High Streets under ever-increasing pressure, for customers to lose personal access to their banks, with their professional advice and services, as well as cash machines, will be the death knell for many businesses, especially those largely reliant on cash transactions in smaller towns.
Not everyone banks online; according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 7.5 per cent of people have never even used the internet. Almost daily, we are alerted to the potential for fraud, so security is a priority. Everyone is vulnerable, however careful and technologically literate they are.
Having access to a human being to discuss issues, whether a loan, mortgage, or to maximise the return on any savings, is a huge benefit. It is not the same doing it online without assurance of ‘best value’! Being able to speak to someone in person builds trust – and loyalty, sharing information about suspected fraud, is essential, yet customers trying to make contact by phone can potentially wait for up to an hour, or even longer, before getting a response. Report online or use the App, we’re told, or give up! If you try to visit your bank branch, expect to queue for ever, or find it shut. This is not good enough.
Despite the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) working with banks to ‘prioritise customers and their needs’, the pandemic is threatening a further 274 bank closures across the country, whilst also reducing opening times, leaving customers unable to pay in cheques (yes, they are still used for some transactions), pay bills, or withdraw cash. Even mobile units, introduced after previous closures, have disappeared.
Post Offices have already left hundreds of High Streets, causing considerable inconvenience to local residents, not least those attempting to return goods bought online, wanting assistance renewing a passport, paying road fund tax, or using banking services.
Losing banks and post offices is not just an inconvenience, but means thousands of people having to travel to other locations to access services, especially in rural areas where broadband is not just slow, but sometimes inaccessible or intermittent.
So, isn’t it time for banks, building societies, and post offices, to agree a simple plan, working in partnership to restore accessible customer service to meet community need? There is no reason, surely, why the finance sector couldn’t share premises. It could be an opportunity to use some of the commercial properties which local councils have acquired as ‘investments’ in recent years and now remain empty. Alternatively, rationalise how public buildings, which often have large empty reception areas, and even libraries, are used, making them more user-friendly and efficient for broader communities.
A simple business plan could target specific locations, identified in consultation with local authorities and business organisations; with each partner allocated sites and contributing a set annual amount to a central fund to cover staff and accommodation costs.
Department stores are suffering from a decline in footfall, so bringing banks and post offices into vacant space would be a huge advantage, alongside estate agents, hairdressers and nail bars, smartening up these tired institutions, crammed with everything from cosmetics and clothing to kitchenware and furniture, without giving any thought how to attract buyers. Instead of opening 9.00-5.30, add some flexibility (opening and closing later a couple of days a week) with special events, launching new products, and even introducing wine bars, rather than the tatty coffee bars which are currently commonplace.
Retail is in a rut because it failed to respond to the online challenge, pursuing the same boring model for generations, blinkered to demands for something different and more exciting. In the 1960s it was fashion designers like Mary Quant, and interior design gurus like Terence Conran who revolutionised the shopping experience, making it exciting after the post-war decline; we need similar creativity to deliver a revival today. Local authorities and Business Improvement Districts (BID) could work with landlords to utilise prominent but redundant retail units, showcasing new talent, with competitions to select the best ideas and products.
The UK has some of the most innovative people, developing world-beating technology for gaming and film production; their knowledge and skills could be put to use in the High Street, with space to attract custom, including children playing online games, and even helping the less technically inclined to build their confidence, making it fun.
BIDs could also encourage young musical and theatrical talent to put on shows in public spaces for a couple of hours each month, welcoming people to stay longer into the evening after work. Introducing monthly Art markets for paintings, photography, pottery etc.. promoting the creative industries, would also be popular, drawing people in for a new experience, meeting others who share their enjoyment.
Such change means that people will want to return to live in town centres, with tree-lined pedestrian areas filled with plant boxes allowing them to give up their cars to walk or cycle, helping the environment. It will also encourage those at risk of losing their jobs in the current crisis and choosing self-employment, to set up their own businesses, utilising their unique skills. They are key to building the next generation’s success.
So, banks must be part of the town centre revival, having a physical presence. If they don’t participate, they will regret it because they will not only lose customers but miss major future investment opportunities! Rivals will be waiting in the wings to grab them.