Julian Knight: The local Metro? It's banking, AJ, but not as we know it
Sunday 22 May 2011
I really do need to get a life.
My lunchtime wasn't spent taking in the rays in Hyde Park or enjoying a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc at any one of the numerous wine bars; no, instead I voluntarily went to a bank for a nosey around. Not a normal bank, though, and not one I have an account with; it was the new Metro bank branch on Kensington High Street, which opened in a blaze of balloons and face painting a couple of weeks ago. With its stark red-and-blue colour scheme – which I'm sorry to say will date incredibly quickly – it has the feel of a seaside arcade about it. Notice straight away the fact that the bank is full of staff – few customers – and incredibly tidy desks. But I'm not going to be bitchy about Metro because of AJ, a young branch worker who approached me. Friendly to a fault, polite and open, he gave me, an ordinary punter off the street – I didn't say who I was or what I was doing there – an impromptu tour of the branch, including the vault and the secure room where you can look at your safety deposit box. You can rent one from £100 a year in the branch and have seven-day access, which is a real boon for those, like me, worried about storing building society account books and personal documents at home at the mercy of burglars.
And I like the change machine where you dump your coins in and it produces a chit with how much you have paid in, which you can then either pay into a Metro current account or transfer to an account with another bank.
However, I do have some worries about the Metro bank concept. Chief among these are that it is solely London-based and will be for quite a few years. The suspicion is that Metro will grab a few per cent of the lucrative mid-to-upmarket end of the London banking market and then sell up to one of their huge competitors. At a stroke, customers will be back to square one, with some soulless drone from one of the big banks squeezing every ounce of margin out of them and completely forgetting about customer service. But perhaps I'm being too sceptical – an occupational hazard, I'm afraid – perhaps I ought, instead, to think of AJ's friendly handshake and genuine excitement at what his bank is about.
Lay off the comparison sites
Direct Line is puffing out its chest over the results of a Which? survey that so-called aggregators – that's price-comparison websites in plain English – are lacking in that dreadful word "transparency". Apparently, it's not totally clear that many of the price comparison websites only offer a percentage of the market, rather than 100 per cent.
It's worth noting that no price-comparison site can cover 100 per cent because Direct Line and Aviva choose not to take part, knowing only too well that in many instances their insurance quotations wouldn't pass muster in the hyper-competitive environment of the comparison site. Direct Line has tried to spin a "told you so" line out of the Which? survey, and it's disingenuous in the extreme.
A couple of years ago, I was quite concerned about some of the practices of the comparison sites, particularly in the utilities sector. But, generally, a combination of regulator action and the white-hot heat of competition are serving consumers well. As for worries over sites not covering the majority of the market; the answer is simple, go to several and compare the comparison sites, it takes minutes. All in all, the advent of comparison sites has been one of the major consumer advances of the past 20 years, saving time and allowing active shoppers to find the very best deal.
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