Money, men and machines

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 05:00 27/12/2013
Fairfax NZ

Richard Meadows takes a look at how bank branches are changing.

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When was the last time you set foot in a bank branch?

Between ATMs, internet banking, and the explosion of mobile banking, there's little reason for many people to actually visit a branch.

And if you haven't done so in the last year or two, you'll be in for quite a surprise.

Modern bank branches have come a long way from the formal, stuffy branches of yesteryear.

Queues behind tall counters have been replaced with open-plan spaces, where tellers walk out and greet customers as they arrive.

Staff have traded suit jackets and mini-dresses for casual Friday attire, and closed-door offices have given way to comfy couches and meeting pods.

As banks adapt to the changing needs of their customers, we took a tour of five leading branches to find out what's going on.

KIWIBANK

Until now, most of the state-owned bank's branches have been little more than an afterthought, tucked into the corner of a PostShop.

Eight newly refitted flagship branches in Auckland and one in Paraparaumu have turned that on its head.

Walk into the bank's Milford branch on the North Shore and Kiwibank is the star attraction, while the PostShop is partitioned off to the side.

There's a funky design aesthetic with a big, open-floor space and sofas to hang out on.

Traditional paper withdrawal and deposit slips sit alongside iPads loaded with apps and money tools.

Communications manager Bruce Thompson says the bank will keep moving to the new format, depending on how the North Shore trial goes.

ASB

The next stop is ASB's Innovation Lab, located on the ground floor of its new headquarters on Auckland's waterfront.

Rather than being a flagship branch, this is what head of branch banking Logan Munro calls a "toys and play centre".

As you walk through the door into the big, open atrium, you're greeted by "concierges" - not tellers - while Michael Jackson pipes through the sound system.

One of the gadgets being trialled is a touch-enabled ATM prototype - the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

The most striking toys are the enormous 103-inch plasma screens, hooked up to an Xbox Kinect motion sensor.

By moving his arms and hands about, Munro pulls up information about buying a house and checks foreign exchange rates. Even when the branch is closed at night, customers can stand outside and gesticulate through the glass.

It's information only, says Munro - you don't want your account balance splashed across a screen the size of a wall.

The bank also has a giant touch-screen table surface, with information you can drag and drop around or email to yourself.

Add to that the multiple touch-screen TV screens in the circular meeting rooms, videophones in every branch, and hi-tech ATMs - more on these later.

There's literally nothing that's recognisable from the old-fashioned bank layout.

BNZ

The BNZ has poured $200 million into refurbishing its branches and building a nationwide business centre network over the past three years.

Rebranding its branches as "stores" was a statement of intent, says head of retail Andy Symons.

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"We put a line in the sand and said if we want to be different to other banks, maybe we need to compare ourselves to great retailers, rather than banks."

It went to great lengths to do so, working with leading retail consultants and even creating a mock branch to get customer feedback.

Customers consistently said they were looking for a friendlier and more engaging environment, says Symons.

"It's really difficult to create that when you've great big chunks of glass or Perspex between you and the customer, or wire ropes."

At BNZ's flagship 80 Queen St store, the tellers' desks are clustered in the middle of the floor, with no barriers.

The great enabler for the new layout are new security features, especially time-locked "cash recycling units" which act as miniature safes.

The store's enormous glass windows serve a dual purpose- improving security but also capitalising on the 20,000-odd potential customers who walk past each day.

"The front windows of any retail space are huge real estate," says Symons.

Powerful projectors and motion detectors cause the window panels to shift patterns and display different images.

Inside, there are the usual iPads and videophones, which customers help themselves to without prompting.

There's also magnet-based "surface technology", which looks like something out of a sci-fi film, for browsing information by touch on a large, horizontal screen.

It's slightly unwieldy to use and may prove to be more of a novelty than anything else, but seems to be popular with customers.

WESTPAC

Just across the road at Westpac's 79 Queen St branch, the retail theme continues.

The most striking features are the coffee caravan bought through Trade Me (discounts for Westpac customers) and a 400kg Lego helicopter sculpture.

There are plenty of couches and tables, where several people are drinking coffee and having private meetings.

Westpac head of retail Ian Blair says when he was a bank manager, he used to sit behind the stereotypical mahogany desk with a fireplace in the corner.

Now he points out staff coming out from behind the counters to work the floor, including the bank manager himself.

It's all about helping customers to help themselves. Westpac's over-the-counter transactions are down 11 per cent in the September quarter compared to last year.

In the same period, mobile transactions have rocketed 284 per cent.

Where mobile banking falls down - physical cash-handling - there's another technology to fill the gap.

Westpac has introduced 117 of the next generation "smart" ATMs, which take deposits as well as withdrawals.

They're already capable of instantly sorting and accepting banknotes, coins and cheques, and will soon be able to process things like police fines too.

By the middle of next year, Blair expects the machines will account for 80 per cent of transactions which used to go over the counter.

The first standalone smart ATM will be installed in Karangahape Rd shortly, and customers already have 24-hour access to the machines in branches.

Blair says they're particularly popular with small business owners, who can deposit their till takings when they close, rather than have to keep cash safe until the morning.

But the combined impact of mobile banking and smart ATMs is also great for bank staff, who are spending less and less time handling cash.

"Their time's freed up to have conversations with customers, rather than just doing the drudgery of processing," says Blair.

ANZ

The massive changes going on within the banking industry are most visually obvious at ANZ's 205 Queen St branch.

The bank is investing $100m nationwide on upgrading and modernising its branches, including $10m on its Queen St locations alone.

Number 205 currently resembles a construction site, but head of key business initiatives Rob Mark took us on a virtual tour.

The bank is being re-fitted from the very floor upwards, to adjust for the heavier weight of the cash recycling units and self-service kiosks.

Like the other banks, ANZ staff will move out from behind high counters into an open-plan style floor. And while it's experiencing the same shift from a transaction role to more advice and education, it's mostly sticking to its knitting.

"There are no helicopters or caravans or coffee shops in here; if you want to talk to a specialist, this is the place you come," says Mark.

You won't find racks of iPads or giant touch-screens, either.

Instead the bank is focused on providing as many flesh-and-blood specialist bankers in branches as it can.

In fact, the biggest technology game-changers are ones that customers won't even notice, says Mark. Those are the cash recycling units - which enable the open-plan layout - and wi-fi.

Specialists who would previously have been chained to a desk are free to come out and meet with customers in planned collaboration spaces. "There's no wow factor - but the flexibility completely changes the experience," says Mark.

The bank has deliberately decided against providing mobile devices, as people are increasingly opting to bring their own. That provides a much better level of engagement, says Mark. "People show up with their iPhones and their Galaxy S4s and their Minis, rather than us standing here going ‘Watch me do it on mine'."

THE FUTURE OF BRANCHES

It's a tricky situation. While customers have less and less need for physical branches, they still like having one nearby for the occasional visit.

Westpac's Ian Blair thinks the number of bank branches will definitely shrink in the future, but they won't disappear altogether.

"What we will have is more points of representation."

Cash-handling and transactions are moving towards self-service, but there's one area which hasn't been replaced . . . yet.

Blair cites Australian research, which found 75 per cent of people taking out home loans still wanted to sit down face to face with someone and have a chat.

BNZ's Andy Symons says the idea that digital banking and bricks and mortar branches are mutually exclusive "couldn't be further from the truth". He thinks the branch has a big role to play, particularly as it becomes more tailored to the local population and to individual customers.

Symons says there'll be lots more innovation rolled out in the years ahead. He imagines ATMs where people simply drag and drop funds to the money slot, or to their phone or another device.

A hologram of your bank manager popping up on the coffee table might not be so useful, however. Symons says innovation for innovation's sake is no good - it has to be customer-driven.

"Banks will get a lot better at listening, rather than building and assuming that the customers will come."

ASB's Logan Munro is confident that customers will embrace the new technologies and evolving banking environment.

"New Zealanders are early adopters, and they love the change."

- Fairfax Media

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