Bringing banking to the supermarket shelves

If rumours that Barclays is planning to open branches in Asda stores prove true – and successful – its rivals may follow, says Kate Hughes

First the supermarkets started selling financial products; now it seems banks are moving into the aisles, with last week's rumour that Barclays is planning to close a quarter of its branches in favour of 400 new branches in Asda stores.

Barclays denied the reports, simply reaffirming its longer-term plans to move away from traditional banking in light of the growth of mobile and internet banking. Even so, the rumour has provoked a media storm days before Barclays opens four branches in Asda stores in a trial.

The idea is to offer customers banking facilities that better fit their lifestyles and requirements and is popular in the USA and a number of other countries around the world.

But this strategy has been tried in the UK before and failed spectacularly, with the HSBC, the Post Office and Lloyds having made similar forays with WH Smith, Morrisons and Asda respectively. All those facilities later closed.

But that was more than a decade ago and both personal banking technology and consumer banking behaviour have evolved dramatically since then.

"If supermarket-based branches can deliver more convenient opening hours for those who work weekdays, as well as increasing the ease of access for customers by utilising supermarket car parking, then maybe customers will be inclined to visit their branch on a more regular basis," says Matt Sanders, banking spokesperson at Gocompare.com.

"With Tesco also possibly planning to have their own banking service in supermarkets, this could signal the future of banking," suggests Jafar Hassan, personal finance specialist at uSwitch.com.

"It would also be an interesting sign of the times and further confirmation of a self-serve culture. Life and time is pressured and people want time-effective banking."

If the move proves popular and more big names line up next to the check outs offering a range of banking services, supermarkets with rival banking products may be faced with a significant dilemma.

Almost 70 per cent of consumers believe they get good customer service from supermarkets and retailers, compared with less than 40 per cent who think the same thing of traditional high street banks.

And when it comes to value for money, research conducted by uSwitch.com in 2012 found fewer than one in 10 people thought banks "delivered" compared with more than half who said the same thing about supermarkets and retailers.

However, Brian Brown, head of insight for financial research company Defaqto isn't so sure.

"Banking can't get any more expensive for consumers, so banks need to strip costs out of operations, and this is one option," he said. "But these branches will be much more restricted and there's no way that supermarkets will let them have a full-scale branch in store [to rival their own products]. Not only that, but most supermarket customers do their shopping on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, and just 15-20 per cent are there during banking opening hours.

"There is a convenience for older customers, but I can't see it happening in every store," he adds. "And what's the point of keeping branches open when everyone banks online?"

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