Seven-day 'financial store' opens new era

Sunday banking: NatWest backs personal approach at family-friendly branch
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The Independent Online

Britain yesterday saw the launch of the "bank branch of the future", offering Sunday opening, automated or personal service, and complete with soft-furnishings, Disney videos and nappy-changing facilities.

According to NatWest, the branch at Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, Essex, is the first UK bank to open seven days a week, all year round. And it is less a branch, the company says, than a financial store; a new concept in banking which rejects the notion that all banking will eventually take place via telephone or digital screen.

"Research tells us that people are very happy to do basic transactional banking over the phone or via machines. But for things like mortgages and pensions they are much less confident," Tim Burfoot, head of NatWest distribution strategy, said. "We wanted to create an environment which was about people, where they could feel comfortable and relaxed. We think this is the branch of the future."

Instead of counters, the bank has cash and foreign exchange machines on one side, along with a telephone which offers direct connection to banking and insurance services.

On the other side it has coffee lounge-type rooms, complete with paintings and soft-furnishings, where customers can talk over coffee with financial advisers. Videos and play-kits are available for small children, along with nappy-changing facilities.

"The emphasis is not on cash but on talking to people," Roger Thomas, the regional managing director, said. "People can be here for some hours discussing pensions or mortgages and they frequently bring children so we wanted to make everything comfortable for them and reduce some of the anxiety and stress people feel in these circumstances."

John Harding, one of two "store managers" at the new branch, denied that the new title was a change in name only. He said the new layout was like a "conventional shop" where people could walk round and store assistants would offer help. "That's why we're calling it a store," he said.

Opening at Lakeside on a Sunday makes financial sense to the bank. With 500,000 customers a week, Sundays are now as busy as Saturdays. According to NatWest there had been little opposition to Sunday opening, either from banking unions or staff, who had oversubscribed the new jobs by 10 to 1.

And the crowd of 150 people who had come to join in the opening celebrations were equally enthusiastic. Sporting badges, balloons and silly hats, they appeared to treat the new opening, complete with champagne, streamers and a loud countdown, with as much enthusiasm as the staff.

"I definitely like it," said Kerry Vale from Witham, shopping with her four-year-old son Reece. "I would rather come on Sunday. And if you've got to sit down and talk then at least there's stuff to keep the kids occupied." Steve Thompson, a 27-year-old hod carrier, agreed. "Sunday's just the same as any other day now really, isn't it?" he said. "It would be better for me as I wouldn't have to take time off work."

He had been standing by the ceremonial ribbon for nearly 25 minutes. So was he impressed by the celebrations? "Not really. There's no need for all this, is there? I'm just waiting to use the bloody cash machine."