Deep in the bowels of the new Halifax mega flagship branch opened on Europe’s busiest shopping street, mechanics are whirling away to bring up a safety deposit box I’ve requested.
There are more than 1,500 boxes available to customers of the bank and they can only be accessed with a key card, PIN, fingerprint and finally, key.
I expected to see rows upon rows of metal boxes. But instead, customers wait for a machine behind the scenes to obtain their box until it finally pops up via a metal door.
Jo Griffiths, senior bank manager of the 13,500 square foot branch located opposite Tottenham Court Road station in London, explains that the boxes are already proving popular.
Mega branch: The new Halifax location is on Europe’s busiest shopping street and located opposite the newly revamped Tottenham Court Road station
I am disappointed, however, when the metal door slides open to reveal the box and, when she opens it with her key, it is empty. I was at least expecting a packet of Hobnobs in there for dramatic effect – a missed opportunity.
As This is Money has previously pointed out, one of Halifax’s rivals, Metro Bank, says safety deposit boxes can often pay a large chunk of its branch running costs. There is huge appetite for them.
At Halifax, they range from a small box at £200 per year to a large one at £475 per year. Furthermore, much like Metro, this new Halifax branch is open seven days a week – and until 8pm on weekdays.
To obtain a box, you must have a Halifax mortgage – or have had a current or savings account with it for at least one month.
It says that a safe deposit box is not an alternative to insurance and that customers are responsible for arranging suitable cover for possessions.
It also has a list of items that cannot be held in them. From the obvious, such as weapons, to wills and bank notes of any jurisdiction that are still in circulation.
The new safe boxes are just one feature of the beast of a branch, which opened last month. It is thought to be the largest in the country and its launch bucks the trend of bank closures across the country that are happening at an alarming rate.
It has three floors and is located where a former Dorothy Perkins and Burton flagship used to be, part of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire.
View from the counter: On the main floor, it has a playful feel and has a travel zone
Again, this has a touch of Metro Bank about it. The start-up bank, founded in 2010, tends to open branches in former retail units with double glass and on corners of busy shopping streets.
The similarities don’t stop there. There is a coin counting machine and friendly staff greeting customers at the door, to see how they can help.
When This is Money visited on a Thursday afternoon, staff members seemed to outnumber customers.
It has more than 50 workers, many of whom have arrived from four nearby branches that have closed in recent years.
Halifax says it has been designed ‘to meet the changing needs of high street customers and be a potential blueprint for the future of banking.’
It is currently looking at merging three branches in Leeds in a similar vein while its parent, Lloyds Banking Group, recently opened its flagship in Manchester.
Halifax’s one here has an emphasis on first-time buyers to focus on what it believes customers want in the capital. While in Manchester, Lloyds is focusing on small business.
The Halifax branch aims to help customers with all aspects of the home buying and moving process, with staff on hand at all times, available without appointment.
Located on the top floor, next to a café, it has interactive screens to help people through the minefield of home ownership.
The café, which sells coffees for £2.50 a pop, has teamed up with Change Please, with any profits heading to the homelessness charity.
Caffeine fix: Could coffee shops become are more common sight inside bank branches?
Alongside this there are other different zones, such as travel and a kids’ savings area. Both are playful and interactive.
A nice touch is that children can pick out a piggy bank from a case when an account is opened. An expensive touch is an interactive globe with details of travel destinations.
Meanwhile, the children can be packed off with an iPad with games and videos presumably to keep them entertained while the parents are discussing more important matters.
There is plenty of plush seating dotted about which make it look like a bit of a Scandi furniture store – and some people were sitting around, making the most of the free wi-fi.
Jo – who has been with the banking group for two decades – says it hosts many events throughout the week in the branch with tickets available via Eventbrite, including talks for first-time buyers and coding for children at the weekend, which is ‘immensely popular’.
Another big difference to the usual bank branch is the fact three counters, located at the back, have no staff sitting there and no screen to shield them. In fact, no staff were there the entirety of the length of our visit.
Instead, staff are at the front of the branch helping customers either with transactions using machines, or alert a specialist colleague whether an appointment has come in, all contacted via headsets.
The meeting rooms are all decked out in themes, including the study, garden and lounge.
Another extravagant touch is two telephone boxes, repainted in Halifax blue, for customers to do telephone banking.
Telephone banking: Customers can use these repainted telephone boxes
The new branch comes at a time when 2,300 bank branches have closed since 2015, many of which have been in rural locations.
And Britain’s top five banks may be on track to axe up to 2,400 more branches, according to research by banking and financial services analyst David Black, of DJB Research, commissioned by the Nottingham Building Society.
This, it says, would mean 12,000 jobs are at risk.
That figure would represent a closure of around 25 per cent of the existing bank branch network for Lloyds, RBS, NatWest, Barclays and HSBC.
The report predicts that some existing branches could reduce in size, removing cashiers and adding coffee shops to boost footfall in locations that would start to resemble a ‘convenience supermarket-style’ approach where customers serve themselves when paying in cheques or managing savings accounts.
This Halifax branch appears to fit that mould.
Kid friendly: The Halifax branch has a coin counter and opportunity for children to pick a piggy bank
Halifax is not alone in turning to the mega branch model. Barclays opened a flagship branch in Belfast in January, while TSB has two large two storey branches in Aberdeen and Birmingham, with another under construction in Manchester.
Russell Galley, managing director of Halifax, said: ‘Banking is often quick and transactional but we know that some financial decisions need more thought and that’s why branches remain vitally important.
‘We’ve built a different kind of bank branch, providing the services that we know customers want to access face-to-face with our expert colleagues.
‘Our new flagship branch is on the busiest shopping street in the UK, giving us a unique opportunity to help more people than anywhere else in the country.
‘Access to such a broad customer base will help us test new concepts so that we can continue to offer the best possible customer experience.’
Halifax says the branch is open to everyone, with customers and non-customers alike ‘encouraged to take their time and explore at their leisure.’
The latter, you would presume, Halifax is hoping will be impressed enough with this glossy multi-million pound branch to sign up as a customer.
So, is it future of bank branches? It’s hard to say – but don’t be surprised to see branches of all banks across the country in big cities and towns merge into one big unit, full of ways to entice footfall into them, including yet another way to get a caffeine fix.
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