Canadian banks are changing with the times to compete for new clients

Toronto's financial district is pictured on Friday, July 26, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu.
Toronto's financial district is pictured on Friday, July 26, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu.

TORONTO – Customers at North Shore Credit Union branches in British Columbia are greeted by a concierge, presented with a hot towel and invited to sit and sip a latte while doing their banking.

This type of environment – complete with spa music and paintings of the West Coast mountains adorning the walls – is the future of banking, according to North Shore chief executive Chris Catliff.

“Our research was showing that clients perceive the process at financial institutions, of going through a financial plan and an annual checkup, much like they did going to a dentist,” he said from Vancouver.

READ MORE: Canada’s big banks see combined profits slide

So the credit union took it upon itself to transform nearly all of its 12 branches scattered across the province into “financial spas.”

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It’s an unconventional approach but, in an industry where many of the services on offer are similar, financial institutions are under pressure to find ways to attract new customers or entice them away from the competition.

The banking industry has always been big business in Canada. Last month, the country’s largest banks – Royal Bank, TD Bank, Scotiabank, CIBC and Bank of Montreal – reported combined profits of $7.63 billion in their third-quarter, a small slip from $7.8 billion in the same period a year earlier.

Their effort to gain the attention, and the accounts, of Canadians, range from improving mobile services to dropping banking fees.

Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) recently renovated its branch at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto by equipping it with state of the art ABMs, issuing digital brochures and creating a more open concept environment for advisers to work with customers.

“It’s increasingly more competitive and customers are looking for a value exchange. They know their business is valuable so banks and financial services providers need to compete hard for it,” said John Doig, Scotia’s senior vice-president and chief marketing officer.

Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) is experimenting with “micro” branches in neighbourhoods that can’t accommodate a full-sized branch. Many of the locations are in high-density areas, such as the lower level of condominium buildings.

Royal Bank (TSX:RY), which takes a different approach than North Shore, says its investment advisers are often on the road.

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“Customers want to be financially savvy, not sit down to spa music,” said David McKay, group head of personal and commercial banking at RBC.

“Our belief is that you shouldn’t make customers come to you, we go to them,” he said. “(Advisers will) meet you in your office, they’ll meet you at home, they’ll meet you at Starbucks, or they’ll meet you in one of our branches if that’s most comfortable and convenient for you.”

The head of President’s Choice Financial, owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd. (TSX:L), says its customers sign up for the no-fee banking.

“It’s not a question about why would you go the competition? It’s a question of, why would the competition’s customers not come to us,” said Barry Columb, president of PC Financial. “There is a choice. There is an alternative to bank fees.”

Tom Dyck, executive vice-president of branch banking at TD Canada Trust (TSX:TD), says it’s the customers who determine what services the banks provide.

“Banking has always been competitive as an industry. But, as you look through the economic changes that happened in 2008, it really confirmed to banks, not just in Canada, but globally, that retail banking is the bread and butter of their franchises,” said Dyck.

And the core needs of customers will largely remain the same, said Larry Tomei, a senior vice-president of retail banking at CIBC (TSX:CM).

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“People still want and are looking for two things: access and advice,” he said.

Meanwhile, at North Shore Credit Union, Catliff said he would consider adding massages to his list of offerings.

He believes the financial spa concept is catching on. This week, the institution that began as a co-operative in 1941 by a group of blue-collar workers in Vancouver, will officially rebrand itself as BlueShore Financial, to reflect its current clientele of mostly affluent, white-collar workers.

“When people walk into our spas, they don’t believe it’s a branch bank and they often open their mouths and go ‘Wow,”‘ he said.

“Is there really anything more differentiating than that?”

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