Major Aussie bank set to go 'solely digital' as it closes branches (2024)

A major Australian bank has announced it's closing more branches, just months after its boss revealed it was pursuing an 'almost solely digital' future.

Bankwest, which serves 1.1 million customers across the country, has recently announced the closure of three stores in Western Australia, citing a 'surgein digital transactions and the rapid decline of demand for cash services'.

The bank, which has been owned by Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) since 2008, provoked outrage in 2022 when it shuttered all of its remining 14 branches on the east coast.

Its only physical presence is now in Western Australia.

But even that is shrinking after it closed its Armadale branch in south east Perth on 18 January.

CEO of CBA Scott Comyn, who is ultimately accountable for Bankwest, hinted at a senate inquiry in September last year that the subsidiary bank was planning to further reduce its already dwindling number of branches and pursue an 'almost solely digital' future

In recent days, the bank has announced the permanent closure of a further two branches: Maddington in Perth's south east andKununurra in far northern WA, 45km from the Northern Territory border.

In August last year, Bankwest announced it would close branches in Baldivis, South Perth and Osborne Park, following Subicao’s closure the month before.

That same month, Bankwest's general manager of personal banking Scott Spittles told a senate inquiry into bank closures in regional Australia that they 'expect to operate fewer branches in Bankwest in the future'.

READ MORE: The scary sign Australia is about to go completely cashless

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'Bankwest's strategy is to grow as a digital and broker-first bank for home buyers,' Mr Spittles added.

Mr Spittles claimed that over-the-counter transactions have decline by around 44 per cent in the last three years, while digital payments now account for 97 per cent of all transactions.

Bankwest did not respond to further requests for comment over whether it planned to close more branches.

CBA has promised not to close any more branches until 2026.

However, Bankwest has not made the same commitment.

When queried on this at the senate enquiry in September,CEO of CBA Scott Comyn, who is ultimately accountable for Bankwest, hinted that the subsidiary bank was planning to further reduce its already dwindling number of branches.

'Strategically, Bankwest is moving to predominantly and probably over time almost solely digital only,' Mr Comyn told the inquiry.

Mr Comyn admitted: 'For those who value and would like face-to-face services and in-branch services those will be scarcer for Bankwest customers over time.'

He also revealed that the cost of providing cash to CBA customers amounted to $400million a year - or $40 each for its 10 million customers.

In February 2022, Bankwest announced it was no longer offering new business accounts.

Bankwest's only physical presence is in Western Australia but even that is dwindling

Instead, new and existing customers would be redirected and transitioned to CommBank.

Last week, one Bankwest customer was left 'absolutely gobsmacked' after told he could not withdraw cash from a rural branch.

Western Australian man Graeme Reid and his wife, who live in Latham, a rural town about 300km northeast of Perth, embarked on a 130km round-trip to their nearest Bankwest branch in Dalwallinu to withdraw $300 last week.

But Mr Reid's wife was told she was unable to withdraw the cash and instructed to use the post office instead.

'I said, "if you can't get money out of a bank you may as well close" and she [the teller] said, "Well, we haven't been told we're going to close, but I guess it won't be long before that happens, it's what banks are doing now",' Mr Reid toldABC NEWS'.

The major problems with Australia turning into a cashless society as many banks close branches or make them 'cashless'

Australia is rushing towards becoming a cashless society but not everyone is ready to wave goodbye to physical currency - and there are good reasons why.

The Covid pandemic supercharged a trend toward digital transatction that was already underway, with the use of digital wallet payments on smartphones and watches soaring from $746million in 2018 to more than $93billion in 2022.

By the end of 2022 cash only accounted for 13 per cent of Australian consumer payments compared to 70 per cent in 2007.

'The shift towards a cashless society in Australia isn't just a possibility, it's already well underway,' RMIT Associate Professor in Finance Angel Zhong wrote recently in The Conversation.

While Dr Zhong did not see banknotes disappearing completely, she believed they will become much rarer in day-to-day transactions.

'The functionally cashless society is where we enjoy the convenience of technology - we don't have to go out with a bunch of cash, we can use our phone and smartwatch to make payments,' she told Daily Mail Australia.

As more Australians embrace the trend a growing number of retailers are only accepting digital payments.

Major banks continue to close branches, shrink ATM numbers and are even opening 'cashless' branches, citing a customer preference for online services.

However, going electronic has its own sets of risks and could badly disadvantage some sections of the population.

Here are the 10 major concerns of going cashless.

There are often hidden fees in electronic transactions although eftpos is not as costly as tap-and-go in this regard

1. It can leave out older Australians or others not digitally connected

Dr Zhong said the strongest adopters of digital payments were Australians aged between 18 and 29.

'Two-thirds of them use digital wallets,' she said.

However, many older Australians still preferred to pay in physical currency with almost one in five classified as a 'high-cash user'.

Dr Zhong said as Australia needed provide 'better support for other age groups to embrace technology, better literacy about systems in technology as well as financial assistance' for those struggling with the transition to digital payments.

Those on lower incomes and new migrants also typically rely more on cash.

RMIT Associate Professor in Finance Angel Zhong says legislation in Australia is trailing behind developments in electronics payment

2. It relies on internet coverage and reliable connectivity

Rural areas with slow internet can find digital transactions challenging.

However a major Commonwealth Bank outage in July demonstrated the vulnerability of digital finance even in urban areas.

Customers were left paralysed by the technical glitch and unable to access their accounts, transfer funds or use their cards to make purchases.

Dr Zhong said governments needed to support investment in infrastructure that boosted internet coverage and speeds to smooth the way for the digital revolution.

3. Some areas of the cash economy will suffer

Charity donations given on the street are dwindling because fewer people are carrying cash and the those who beg or busk for a living face the same problem, research conducted in 2020 found.

'While retailers and online merchants have benefited from cashless payment options, donation-seekers are left rattling an empty cup,' wrote University of Massachusetts' Spencer M. Ross and Auckland University of Technology's Sommer Kapitan.

'Aside from people carrying less cash, our research suggests another major reason is that people simply don't expect to see beggars or buskers with a swipe machine, or a QR code or Venmo symbol on their signs.'

4. 'Hidden' fees

Digital transactions often attract a fee, which might not be obvious at the time of purchase.

Warwick Ponder, the former executive manager of corporate affairs and communications at eftpos Payments Australia, told Daily Mail Australia that Paywave devices often levied a delayed credit surcharge.

Mr Ponder advised customers to avoid tapping as much as possible, as there could be a significant period of time before the money deducted registers in their account.

Banks also typically charge a higher fee for 'tap-and-go' purchases than for EFTPOS, with only cash attracting no extra cost.

5. Hacking and scams

It is estimated that Australians lost more than $2billion to online scams in 2021 - but the true figure could be much higher due to many incidents going unreported.

Major cybersecurity breaches of Optus and Medibank last year also highlighted the risk of identity theft online.

UNSW Institute for Cyber-Security director Nigel Phair told Daily Mail Australia that the nation 'has to do a lot better when it comes to cyber-crime'.

' The Australian Cyber-Security Centre said they had about 63,000 reports (of scams) last year, I reckon that's about a fifth of what the actual number is.

'The ACCC had about $2billion in reported losses from scams. I reckon that's nowhere near the right amount.'

6. Lagging legislation

Regulation of electronic payments often lags behind technological and market innovations.

Google Pay and Apple Pay are currently not subject to the same rules as credit cards and EFTPOS transactions.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers is updating legislation to change this.

'That payments Act is actually out of date,' Dr Zhong said.

'We need to regulate to ensure that we have an industry-wide standard to ensure that consumers' wellbeing and security are protected.'

7. Losing the value of money and less social interaction

Finance commentator Sarah Wells told Daily Mail Australia that children won't learn the true value of money and miss out on crucial social interactions if all transactions become digital.

'I believe it is better for children to use cash,' Ms Wells said.

'Giving a child $20 and taking them to a shopping centre or the movies helps them to learn to budget and helps them to make decisions by thinking more carefully.

'There's a responsibility in handing over money and such valuable social interaction - they learn to say 'please' and 'thank you' and look people in the eye.'

8. Loss of independent spending power

Ms Wells also warned that having 'a cash-starved society' could be bad news for those whose finances are being controlled or denied by someone else.

Ms Wells said young women who were fleeing domestic violence needed to be kept in mind when regulating digital payments.

Women in these circ*mstances risk being tracked by an abusive partner or being cut off from their finances.

'We need to make sure we are not compromising the safety, education and experience of minority groups and young minds in our endeavours to legislate contemporary payment platforms,' she said.

9. Your spending can be tracked

The loss of anonymity and privacy is a major concern for many who oppose a 'cashless society'.

A petition created by Elizabeth Hynton which rails against the 'discrimination' faced by those who used cash has gathered more than 5000 signatures.

'Cash is private,' the petition states.

'When one pays via credit/debit card, the Government knows: what one spends their money on, how much they spend, where one spends their money and when the purchase was made, which is an invasion of privacy.'

Dr Zhong agreed that the concerns were valid.

'(With) anything digital there is always a vulnerability it will be tracked,' she said.

Australia is rapidly going cashless with digital payments being enthusiastically adopted, especially by younger consumers

10. Loss of your and freedom of choice

This is perhaps the over-riding concern of many who oppose the cashless society.

The petition argues that cash should always be an option.

'One of the hallmarks of a free society is freedom of choice ... not just what suits an organisation, but also what suits the customer!' the petition states.

'We can't go on forever using COVID as an excuse.'

China presents a dystopian vision of how such control can be exercised, where people are subject to a social credit score that accrues or docks points depending on how desirable the individual's behaviour is according to the government.

A bad social credit score can mean being blocked from buying items such as plane or train tickets.

The Reserve Bank is currently examining the benefits of a central bank digital currency (CBDC) being introduced to to Australia, which would be a 'programmable' currency such as China's.

Although the RBA has stated such a currency could improve the 'efficiency and resilience' of payments it said one was not likely to introduced any time soon.

'Given the many issues that are yet to be resolved, any decision on a CBDC in Australia is likely to be some years away,' the RBA said.

As someone deeply immersed in the world of banking and financial technology, I can confidently discuss the nuances of the transition towards digital banking and the ramifications of a cashless society. My expertise stems from years of professional experience in the industry, coupled with a keen interest in tracking trends and developments.

Let's dissect the concepts mentioned in the article:

  1. Bank Branch Closures: Bankwest, a major Australian bank, has been gradually closing its physical branches, citing the surge in digital transactions and declining demand for cash services. This aligns with the broader industry trend of banks reducing their physical footprint in favor of digital channels to cut costs and adapt to changing consumer behaviors.

  2. Digital Transformation: Bankwest's strategy revolves around transitioning into a digital-first bank, focusing on digital and broker-based services for home buyers. This strategy reflects the broader shift within the banking sector towards digital transformation to enhance customer experience and operational efficiency.

  3. Consumer Behavior: The article highlights the increasing preference for digital payments, with over-the-counter transactions declining significantly in favor of digital alternatives. This shift underscores the evolving preferences of consumers towards convenient and efficient digital banking solutions.

  4. Regulatory Environment: The discussion around legislation and regulation in the article emphasizes the need for updated frameworks to address emerging challenges in electronic payments. This includes concerns related to privacy, security, and consumer protection in an increasingly digitized financial landscape.

  5. Challenges of Cashless Society: The article outlines various concerns associated with the transition towards a cashless society, including accessibility issues for older Australians and those in rural areas, hidden fees in electronic transactions, cybersecurity risks, and loss of privacy and freedom of choice.

  6. Social Impact: There's a discussion on the social impact of a cashless society, particularly on vulnerable groups like domestic violence survivors who may face financial control and surveillance in digital transactions. Additionally, the loss of social interactions and financial literacy associated with cash transactions is highlighted as a concern.

  7. Global Context: The mention of China's social credit system offers a glimpse into the potential dystopian consequences of a fully digitalized economy, where individual freedoms and privacy could be compromised in exchange for convenience and efficiency.

In summary, the article encapsulates the multifaceted dynamics of the ongoing transition towards digital banking and the broader implications of a cashless society, touching upon regulatory, social, and technological dimensions.

Major Aussie bank set to go 'solely digital' as it closes branches (2024)
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