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JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Next big thing on high street? Amazon Bank

JEFF PRESTRIDGE: While Amazon sees a future on high street, banks are not only closing up, they are undermining branches in devious ways

What a weird world we live in. As we report, internet giant Amazon has decided to make its mighty presence felt on our high streets with stores that are as clinically efficient as they are soulless. But only after driving many retailers out of business with its online assault on our shopping habits. 

I predict here and now that by the time my hair turns white – three, maybe five years’ time – every City centre and bustling town will have an Amazon store. Perish the thought. 

While Amazon sees a future on the high street, the banks are giving up. As we have exclusively reported in recent weeks, 180 bank branch closures have already been announced this year – and more, for sure, are on the way.

Looking ahead: What will the next big thing on the high street be? Amazon Bank

Yet, the banks are undermining their branch networks in other devious ways – by reducing opening hours, shutting them on specific days, and restricting access to counter services at certain times. 

Santander has just gone down this route. Having axed 111 outlets last year, it has now made ‘changes to branch opening hours’ – banking code for reducing them. 

Nearly all of its 450 high street sites will have their weekday opening times clipped by one and a half hours every day, while no branch will be open on a Saturday for more than half a day. 

While the bank says these measures are in response to declining branch usage, it’s not as black and white as it paints. 

If banks make it more difficult for people and small businesses to use their branches, it’s inevitable that customers will be pushed down the digital route. 

As Derek French, a long-standing campaigner for shared branches, told me on Friday: ‘The current strategy of reduced opening hours and restricted counter access will simply drive more of us to digital banking – willing or not.’ 

As ever, French is bang on the money. Maybe, in the fullness of time, we will see Amazon venture into high street banking. Weirder things have happened. 

Good to see Newcastle BS giving shared branches a go 

Talking of shared branches, it is good to see Newcastle Building Society giving them a go. It is piloting the idea in two locations – Knaresborough, North Yorkshire and Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne.

It will mean that personal and business customers of all the big banks will be able to use the branches to withdraw and deposit cash. 

If the pilots prove popular, the technology will be rolled out across Newcastle’s 30-strong branch network. 

‘We champion the high street and believe in its vital role in supporting vibrant local economies,’ Newcastle boss Andrew Haigh told me on Friday. 

‘Decisions made by banks have been at the expense of many vulnerable people who are reliant on cash and as a result they risk being disenfranchised from the financial system.’ 

Well said that man.

Regulation of prepaid funeral plans market cannot come soon enough

Although I am not a big fan of the Financial Conduct Authority, its regulation of the prepaid funeral plans market cannot come soon enough. 

For too long, unscrupulous providers have been given licence to ride roughshod over customers.

As we exclusively reported earlier this month, a big chunk of customers’ money – supposedly safe in a trust fund – was skimmed off by former directors of provider Safe Hands for their own financial benefit. 

It means some 47,000 customers now have no idea whether the funeral they paid for in advance will be delivered when the time comes round (Safe Hands is in administration). 

The FCA will take over regulation at the end of July. It is hoping to publish soon a list of plan providers that it is minded to authorise. 

It is also giving those providers which do not wish to continue post-regulation a little bit more time (until the end of October) to transfer their plans to a company that wishes to be authorised. 

Both are sensible steps. 

What is obvious is that the funeral plans industry will consolidate around a number of big players – the likes of Dignity and the Co-op. 

Let’s just hope that in the runup to regulation, there are no more scandals to match that of Safe Hands. 

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