I won the Oscar for Least Surprising use of Header Image.
So, I’ve been mucking around with online finance recently, which has been making me think about the world of finance at large, and recent developments that might be signposting the way for an industry that seems to be – finally – waking up to the fact it’s the 21st Century.
It took long enough for banks to get their act together and offer proper, robust online banking. It’s taken an equally long time to get apps onto the market. Most of them are… okay, I guess, letting you check your balances and whatnot. But they’re all blown out of the water by Mint, a fantastic product out in the US and Canada. Mint doesn’t just show you one account, like official bank apps do. Instead, it pulls your data – encrypted, certified and read-only – from all your financial operations and combines them in an easily digestible format. This not only helps you understand, well, just how much money you have collectively and where it is, but also keeps you up to date on the minutae most of us don’t quite get around to managing: interest payments, budgeting, and breakdown of spend on activities. When you’re then able to aggregate that all on a mobile app, it’s a great tool for spot-checking whether you can afford that new desirable shiny.
In an age of
being fucking broke austerity, I think it’s a pretty good value offer to allow your customers more control and transparency over their cash. Even though people might be feeling helpless, that probably means that they’re looking for better ways to live within their means. We live in a world of data and representations of data. The smart money is, well… smart. Putting this kind of intelligent power in consumer’s hands, and taking advantage of new channels (especially mobile) in order to do it, is going to be super-important in an age of wavering customer loyalty. Give people a reason to stick around, y’know? Or, like me, you’ll miss out on getting that sort of information to other people, like LoveMoney, which is sort of like Mint for the UK, but lacking (at least for now) a mobile app. I can’t tell you how useful LoveMoney’s MoneyTrack service has already proven in getting a better grip on where I’m spending.
(That deficit is planned and well under control, by the way, thank you very much.)
Now obviously, most banks that are single institutions can’t just dip into other competing banks’ records like Mint or LoveMoney does. However, we’re finally seeing some innovation from Barclays in the form of PingIt. This is a pretty interesting development, because it dips its toe into the rapidly-developing market of mobile payments – something that is set to explode very soon with the rise of NFC and services like Square. The UK’s ultra-conservative finance industry has predictably lagged well behind not only the pioneers of tech in California, but also the pioneers of necessity in Africa and South Asia.
It’s a fascinating little thing: its premise is allowing you to send money to phone numbers, rather than accounts. Of course, it only works if the recipient also has the app, and currently only if they are also Barclays customers. But it’s stolen a hell of a march on the competition – and once it opens up to being able to connect to any UK account, it’ll be a service with significant clout. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t getting geekishly excited about all the data analysis you could do here, geolocation and check-in based in particular. For illustration, please consider how much money is invested in supermarket aisle layout. Now imagine understanding not only the immediate data points, such as times of repayment and your social graph, but also where those payments are coming from and how that might dovetail in to broader media strategies. Looking at the permissions requested from the app, I reckon Barclays are probably thinking along the same lines.
As well as the trend toward management of finances and mobile payments, the recent launch of Virgin Finance showed us how the future of banking – and perhaps retail in general – might look. This is their flagship ‘bank’, in Manchester:
It’s pretty apparent that, like Square, the approach from Virgin is that digital conduits mean less clutter. Branson apparently smashed the glass screen separating teller from customer in the launch with a sledgehammer. A PR stunt, of course, but nonetheless carrying a message: that the days of a binary customer relationship are numbered. It’s not ‘us and them’, it’s ‘we’. Sounds fluffy? Well, I suppose so. But there’s a serious point underneath it, which is that the consumer experience is going to evolve to become precisely that: an experience.
The coupling of more demanding customers – see coffee shops in Waterstones – and technological presets that can disrupt the clone-like formats of current shops are leading to a thought process that centres far more around the consumer, like the outlets of old. The more pleasant a premises is and the longer people stay in it, the more likely they are to buy something and the greater loyalty you foster against ferocious competition. It’s only with wireless technology and digital advancements that this particular breed of shop is becoming viable – but just watch this space. I expect tech to lead the way; you could argue Apple’s stores are halfway there, but finance is an ideal sector for this as well. Banks that don’t look or act like banks are a far more appealing prospect than waiting in line to be served by someone behind glass who you can’t particularly hear because the mic is on the blink. Expect to see more walk-in-and-sit-down stores, with staff trained as much in hospitality as sales. Expect to be beguiled and made to feel at home. Expect to see shelves and racks and tills disappear as assistants wander the floor with wireless payment services. Not tomorrow, perhaps, but not too far in the future either.
Lastly, it’s weird that we live in a world where I can’t easily send money to someone in America despite being able to video chat with them in real time. Someone should probably fix that.