Online Banking: Glory or Gloom?

TSB Bank just announced that less than a month from today, it will close its Frankleigh Park branch.

For readers who might be unfamiliar with those names, TSB is a locally owned full-service bank, and Frankleigh Park is a suburb of New Plymouth, in the western North Island of New Zealand. The most recent figures indicate a population of less than 4,000. The given reason for the branch’s closure is simple: It reflects the global shift to “self-service banking,” where people do more things online. In particular, consumers are using mobile devices in increasing numbers to conduct financial transactions.

Going to the other extreme, consider ICICI Bank, the second-largest private sector financial institution in the world’s second-most populous nation, India. “More than one third of our transactions take place through Internet, making it the second most used medium,” Chief Executive and Managing Director Chanda Kochhar, just announced. “With the increase in Internet usage, it may also grow to occupy the No. 1 position.”

She further noted that mobile phones and tablets are growing at over 100% every year, compared to only 20% in desktops, and that has prompted the company to launch an array of new services, including electronic ‘branches’ that conduct operations around the clock, ‘tablet-based’ banking offerings that ease account opening, and enhanced POS terminals that facilitate every transaction. In the spirit of ‘democratization’—helping consumers without personal access to technology still enjoy its benefits—the company already has 25 electronic branches in 18 locations around the country.

If those seem like extreme examples, take a look at KB Kookmin Bank of South Korea. It launched KB Star Bank, a service optimized for smartphones, in April 2010, and the results seem to have surpassed all expectations. The service had I million subscribers in barely a year, passed 3 million the next year, and was up to 4 million by June of this year.

So where is the United States in all this? The most recent survey by the American Bankers Association reported in September of 2011 that 62% of all bank customers preferred online banking, a rise from 36% the previous year. The real news back then was that, for the first time, a clear majority, 55%, of bank customers over the age of 55 professed a preference for online banking over any other method. That represented a very sharp spike over 2010, when only 20% had the same opinion.

Let’s acknowledge that pretty much any Internet report or survey is nothing more than a snapshot. Online adoption or activity is a fast-moving target, and today’s hot trend is tomorrow’s dinosaur. Obviously, online banking in general and mobile banking in particular are not some niche trends—they represent a massive change in customer behavior, and they’ve evolved faster than most trends that came before. But what does that actually mean?

The most fascinating perspective we can draw from all this is not what’s happening now, but what will happen next year, and the year after that. In that vein, here are some questions that need answers.

First, earlier this year, some banks announced that they were actually constructing new retail outlets. Looking ahead, how many bank branches will we see being closed down over the next few years? Could we see trends following certain patterns—for example, conglomerates shutting down local branches while community banks take their place?

Next, it’s apparent that online banking doesn’t respect demographic or regional boundaries—the trend is being adopted everywhere from Iowa to India, and by Gen-Xers and senior citizens. In developing countries, Internet cafes are being replaced by boutique electronic banks that enable non-tech-savvy people to do everything they would with a PC or a smartphone. The easier the access, the thinking goes, the more the business. If that’s the case, will innovation-minded banks draw business away from institutions that have spent decades building trust?

And finally: If two years from now your bank hasn’t closed any branches and has the same mix of face-to-face and online banking it currently has, is it doing things right? Or is it facing eventual disaster?

Written by Staff