Banking on design

UK banks are launching a new wave of design concepts on hte high street as they refresh their branch networds and try to reconnect with their customers. David Benady takes a look at what’s in store

No longer do bankers talk about branches – these days they call them ‘stores’ as they attempt to give them a fresher, retail flavour. In pursuit of this aim, they are hiring retail designers to inject an element of theatre into their interiors and turn them into destinations to rival some of the big names on the high street.

From the Alliance & Leicester’s multi-coloured revamp of its 250 high street banks – complete with blue-and-orange flashing walls, atmospheric lighting and an open-plan feel – to NatWest’s more restrained and traditional approach, bank designs are veering from the stolidly functional to the dramatically experiential.

Barclays is preparing to pioneer some new concepts after poaching Tesco’s store design director Helen Dodd, who joined as head of network development at the beginning of this year. The bank is already experimenting with new design ideas following the appointment of Deanna Oppenheimer as chief executive of retail banking. She joined from Seattle-based bank Washington Mutual where she introduced concierges, children’s play areas and bookstores into branches. ‘I am looking forward to ideas that move us much closer to the best of the high street. Banks are retailers even if our customers leave with a financial solution rather than a carrier bag,’ says Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, at HSBC, former Dixons design chief Richard Newland has overseen the creation of ‘megastores’ which offer various services in one place. Created by in-house teams, these offer a premier centre for wealthy customers, express banking and even a refreshment area with a coffee machine. HSBC has also vowed to open drive-through banks in the UK if it can find the right locations.

However, perhaps the most radical bank interiors are being created outside the UK in developing markets such as Russia and Turkey, and European countries like Germany.

Michael Allen, the chairman of Allen International, which has designed 130 banks around the world, says there are concepts being used in other countries that could be developed in the UK. One example is its design for a branch of Kreissparkasse Ludwigsburg savings bank in Stuttgart which has a bakery, a newspaper stand, a Tchibo coffee shop and a lottery vendor within it. ‘The idea is for the bank to be the centre of the community, I think it would work in the UK,’ he says. ‘British banks are more conservative than in other mature markets such as Germany. Retail banking is changing dramatically. Banks should be exciting and interesting – things have got to change.’

But this approach has been tried in the UK before with little success. Abbey National (as it then was) experimented with having Costa Coffee cafés in some of its branches and even introduced a crèche and a Carphone Warehouse franchise in one branch. The trial was shortlived and many considered it a step too far.

Banks are straying from their true purpose when they become too theatrical, according to Jim Prior, managing partner at branding group The Partners. ‘Banks have never quite worked out what they want to do with their space,’ he says. ‘There is an ongoing question about what you want a bank to be – a friend or a source of authority?’ He favours a straightforward approach, which recognises that customers want to do their transactions or get financial advice and leave quickly rather than lingering at an in-branch coffee shop.

The Partners worked with retail design group Brand Environment on updating the interiors for NatWest after its acquisition by Royal Bank of Scotland. New zones were introduced according to the needs of the customers, and new fixtures and fittings were installed around the existing infrastructure to keep costs down.

By contrast, others believe banks should exploit their unique position on the high street. Wolff Olins consultant Robert Jones is critical of many bank redesigns. ‘If anything, they are making banks feel more machine-like than ever, like call centres on the high street. You might see a few flagship branches but they are mostly tarted-up versions of what we have always had,’ he says.

He believes there are opportunities to experiment with designs along the lines of Apple’s flagship store on London’s Regent Street, and to make a connection between products and what people want to do with them. ‘People would love to know more about money and how to manage it better. Financial services may be boring but money is not,’ he says.

Former building society Alliance & Leicester is one bank that has taken a radical approach to redesigning its branches. Senior manager for retail Tim Neal says the first move was to take down promotional posters that block out the sunlight. Allowing people to see inside the branches has been crucial to improving their transparency, he believes. The use of LED lighting embedded in walls and a series of fluorescent tubes alternating between orange and blue give the entrances stand-out on the high street. Once inside, the walls keep on glowing. ‘There is a lovely “front of house” that changes colour, it is more of a retail type of feel, achieved through colours that are warm and contemporary,’ he says. There is a welcome desk, a self-service area where people can make calls to enquire about services, and customer ‘pods’ where they can receive advice. The design, created in conjunction with Leicester consultancy Design4retail, is implemented using shopfitters around the country.

Another design consultancy that works on bank interiors internationally is Fortune Street. It has created concepts such as Finansbank, an upmarket retail bank in Turkish cities which sells high-margin products such as mortgages, loans and insurance using a consultancy approach. To deal with queues, there is a standalone payment kiosk for credit card customers. Fortune Street director Tony Allen says,’The big difference abroad compared to here is that the infrastructure is all new, so it is very cheap and easy to implement new schemes.’

While the banks may insist that they are retailers, they will have to work hard to convince shoppers of this. If they succeed, it won’t be unusual to hear the words, ‘I’m just popping down the shops for some life insurance.’

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