• Standard Bank is closing more than 90 branches. 
  • Banks have been shedding jobs for years.
  • Branch reductions are a global reality as consumer banking habits change. 

Of the five biggest retail banks, only Capitec seems to be actively growing branches and staff numbers. Its peers are going from freezing posts to probably the most radical single action by a banking group in decades: Standard Bank announcing it will close 91 of its some 630-odd branches by the end of June.

As many as 1,200 people could lose their jobs and - in an industry that is contracting in the face of technology-driven, people-light new banking businesses - are unlikely to find employment easily.

Read: SA bosses! Here’s a radical idea: be nice

The difference between Capitec and the longer-established players is that, like the new generations of start-ups, they built new technology from scratch, making customer acquisition and on-boarding (what a dreadful word) quicker and easier than other firms.

In January, for example, Capitec signed up its highest number of new accounts ever in a single month: 268,000. Even so, Capitec is also seeing digital conversion, with 4 out of 10 customers transacting via the app. Despite that, it has a significant network of 800 branches and has given no indication that it plans to reduce that number.

Asked this week if branches would be a relic of the past ten years from now, Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala played down that possibility, but would not be drawn on how they would be staffed or how many there would be.

The pressure is building on banks which are struggling not only to convert the technology they use, but also to adapt business models to a rapidly-growing, tech-savvy millennial generation who are happier than their parents to sign up for digital-only financial services and products.

It’s a global trend.

It emerged last year that the UK has lost two-thirds of its branches over thirty years. According to British parliamentary records, there were 20,583 branches in 1988. Today, there are only about 7,500 left. 

In the US, branch closures have risen every year for the past seven, with a record 1,947 shuttered last year.

SA banks have been quietly freezing posts and reducing headcounts in recent years.

Standard Bank’s transparency around this round of cuts suggests the rest of the sector will follow suit.

They will have little choice as consumer preferences show clearly they are looking for banking that is simpler, better and yes, faster, than ever.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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