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Years ago, when I were "no'but a lad", I recall many dire warnings about the likely impact of big banks and building societies in the marketing of financial services products.

The argument went as follows: These banks have a large client base [that's you and me] that they can sell to. The products will be aimed at the lowest common denominator [you and me again], which means people won't be as well served with pensions or life assurance, or investments as they might be.

What's happened since? Well, many banks and building societies have launched their own life assurance arms. Some have even come out with competitive products. Of note is Nationwide's personal pension plan, a good-value option for many people.

But the reality is that, for the most part, the big battalions have failed to deliver. Some of their products are even less competitive than the life insurers they were meant to supplant. A special mention here for NatWest Life, whose pension products offer such poor value that you would need your head examining just to entertain the thought of taking one out.

What has been far more interesting in recent years has been the combination of two particular features.

The first has been the arrival of "new" providers, including Direct Line and Virgin, who are delivering highly competitive savings and investment products. Together with Sainsbury's and Tesco, they are revolutionising the world of personal finance.

The second has been the way a handful of life insurers has fought back. Legal & General, Scottish Widows, Eagle Star, Equitable Life and Merchant Investors have decided to take on the - mainly telephone-based - new financial services providers. Cheap products, with low, or even no up-front charges, are becoming a norm.

However, the majority of the industry has lagged behind. In the short term, this means we are denied the supposed benefits that competition should bring to ordinary savers. In the long run, I can't help but think the big insurers, banks and societies are missing something.

This week saw the launch of Tesco's new financial services centres, set to open at stores throughout the UK within 12 months. Over that time, Tesco plans to roll out a whole series of new pension products, mortgages and loans. Customers will be able to carry out financial transactions at these centres and connect, via video link, with experts. Sainsbury's will no doubt follow suit.

More and more, there appears to be a division between some providers who are determined to be the cheapest and - as a result - are sucking in huge volumes of business from investors and borrowers. The remainder remain determined to extract as much profits as they can from customers, who they believe are too stupid to go elsewhere.

The answer lies in your hands. You could begin by demanding to know if these high-charging companies are as competitive as their telephone- based rivals. If not, send them packing.

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