Banks are thinning their branch networks. More drastic cuts may come.
“WHY can’t I just talk to somebody?” screams an exasperated customer in a 1980s advertisement for Barclays, a British bank. In the dystopian future it depicted, banking is entirely automated. A computer-generated face on a screen is denying all requests for a loan—until the customer smashes it. The camera then cuts to an image of a smiling Barclays adviser sitting in a busy suburban branch, eager to help. “Do you worry the more banks become automated, the more you’ll become just a number?” a kindly voice asks.
Thirty years on, the vision the admen fretted about is coming to pass, while branches of the sort presented as the solution are largely empty. Customers, it seems, are perfectly happy dealing with machines—often their mobile phones—to check their balances or make a payment. Barclays has even embraced video banking: in what it called “a watershed moment”, it recently launched a round-the-clock service that allows clients to speak to advisers on a screen.
For years branch numbers in rich countries have been on a downward path, a trend that shows no signs of abating. In America there are 1,441 fewer branches today than a year ago, and 5,439 fewer than at the peak reached in 2008 (see chart). Banks long seen as brick-and-mortar enthusiasts, such as JPMorgan Chase, have announced retrenchment plans. The decline has been even quicker in the euro zone, which has roughly 160,000 branches, many more than America despite a similar population.
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