This is a bank? Yes! Retail finance takes on new appearance

Facing the intense competition in the retail banking space, banks are shedding their traditional look and adding services to woo savvy clients.

When Zhou Wenxin, 30, and her husband were recently at the K11 Art Mall, she peered through the window of what she assumed was a shop and was surprised to see the Standard Chartered logo.

In a setting of restaurants, high-end shops and entertainment venues, Zhou said she hadn’t expected to find a bank there at all.

Curious, she and her husband walked into what is the Huangpi Road South sub-branch of Standard Chartered Bank (China), which features what it likes to call the “dream cabin.” Unlike the usual layout of bank arms, the couple found facilities inside to play virtual reality games.

Opened this January, the branch is split into two parts. The “dream cabin” uses interactive equipment to grab the attention of potential clients. The other part, located on Floor B2, provides cashless financial services and stays open until 8pm every day.

The extended hours and the integration of banking and entertainment puts Standard Chartered at the forefront of a new trend in retail finance. The Huangpi branch relies on its proximity to Xintiandi, a top commercial and entertainment site in Shanghai, to attract well-heeled customers.

Facilities to play virtual reality games inside the “dream cabin” in Standard Chartered China’s Huangpi branch.

The British-based lender is also teaming up with China Eastern Airlines to offer clients special packages, including discounts of as much as 3,000 yuan (US$475) on some designated trips. That’s in tune with a recent survey by the National Bureau of Statistics that found travel ranks high on Chinese wish lists.

“The bonus is really attractive,” said Ying Xiaoyan, who happened upon the new Standard Chartered branch last weekend.

A worker in the financial industry, Ying said her experience with foreign lenders is mainly in corporate banking, but for the needs of daily life, foreign banks are “high-end, magnificent and classy” and even somewhat “mysterious.”

Standard Chartered also hosts a variety of offline events, like Lego-themed parent-child activities and flower arrangement salons, to offer extra benefits to clients. When Ying learned that the threshold to enjoy such privileges is 500,000 yuan, she said she might consider personal banking with the lender.

Rising wealth is increased the sophistication of banks in searching for ways to penetrate that customer base, said Zhu Yaming, managing director and head of retail banking at Standard Chartered China.

“We keep enriching our products to satisfy the whole life cycle of clients,” she said.

Zhu, a veteran in consumer banking, said banks should need to upgrade their traditional branches to focus more on a “finance-plus-lifestyle” model that connects their services more closely to the daily lives of customers.

One staffer at the new Standard Chartered arm put it this way: “We do not just focus on wealth management needs of our customers. We think about why people want to save money. Obviously, they want to create and enjoy a better quality life.”

Cashless financial services offered in the Huangpi Road South sub-branch of Standard Chartered Bank China

The British lender isn’t the only bank recognizing the need to adapt.

Taiwan-based Fubon Bank has introduced “exquisite” financial services to the mainland, creating specialty branches such as the "art gallery bank," the "coffee bank" and the "book bank" in big cities like Shanghai, Nanjing and Chengdu.

Fubon Bank (China) has redecorated its outlets to create a home-like setting, with paintings, comfortable sofas and lifestyle magazines. It’s part of the bank’s “small but beautiful” strategy combining finance with the air of socializing.

“People do not to have to come to our branch to do transactions,” according to a manager at the Lujiazui branch. “We want our clients to know they can come here to relax or just chat.”

 The outlet taps the Chinese 24 solar terms, like jingzhe, xiazhi and qiufen, as names for their outlets. These seasonal shifts also symbolize the different stages of the lives of their customers.

Take jingzhe, which literally means “the awakening of hibernating insects.” Fubon Bank uses the term as the name of the office dealing with basic banking services. The term implies youth and their awakening to opportunities like starting a company.

In the outlet, there’s a stool in front of each counter where clients can put their luggage while transacting business. It’s a nod to the many Taiwan clients who come to the bank straight from the airport, an officer at the bank said.

There is even a massage armchair in the office for clients who need some de-stressing while going through the time-consuming procedure of perusing and selecting wealth management products.

Fubon Bank (China) has partnered with major payment services providers to make payments more convenient, and it also sponsors sessions on health, education and other issues of daily importance to clients.

One staffer talks with clients at the Lujiazui branch of Fubon Bank China.

Darren Buckley, country business manager of global consumer banking at Citi China, told Shanghai Daily that relationship managers are the bank’s “key assets.”

In 2015, he said, Citibank and Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania began an executive education program aimed at helping front-line managers cultivate conversations with clients to build trust and long-term relationships.

“Competitors can replicate our products and offerings, but it will be very hard for them to replicate the trusted relationships we have built with our clients,” Buckley said.

A relationship manager serves customers in an outlet of Citi China.

China has become the second-largest individual asset market behind the US – a goldmine for banks seeking to expand their business. According to Citi Research, China’s individually held, investable assets have grown fivefold from a decade ago, to 188 trillion yuan.

Xu Min, head of retail banking at the US lender, said the bank’s global network is a boon for Chinese students in the US.

“Just think about the 320,000 students who further their studies in the US every year,” he said. “You see a long-term trend. Those who have global financial needs are our target clients.”

Traditionally, Citibank relied on word of mouth to acquire new customers. The bank is now using social media to target a wider audience. Last year, it launched four live-streaming promotional campaigns that attracted more than 1 million views. A series of videos of the stories of satisfied customers is in the works.

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