Britain’s shrinking network of high street banks is an issue that greatly concerns me. I know it also worries many FT readers, who send dozens of letters and emails whenever I write about the subject.
The banks, which are eager to trim their costly branch networks, tell us that online banking is the answer. But is it really better value for customers? A recent plea provided fresh stimulus for the “clicks vs bricks” debate.
Richard Evans, a 64-year-old FT reader from Suffolk, got in touch to tell me that he was at the end of his tether with Lloyds Bank.
His local branch operates on reduced opening hours. So, a while ago, he put aside his misgivings about online banking and made the switch. He downloaded the Lloyds Bank app on his iPad and has never looked back.
Until, that is, he upgraded to the latest version two weeks ago — and the app promptly stopped working.
“The error message simply said the new Lloyds app was not compatible with my iPad,” he said.
After he called a helpline, the bank’s eventual response was that his iPad — which is less than four years old — was now too old for the Lloyds Bank app to work.
Mr Evans was flabbergasted. It turned out that the specific issue was with Apple’s operating software. The new Lloyds iPad app required iOS 10 or higher, yet Mr Evans’ iPad could not go higher than version 9.3.5. The upshot? He would need to buy a new iPad to continue using the app, costing him at least £350.
“It is crazy and utterly outrageous to expect customers like me to buy a new iPad,” he told me. “How many years will the next one last for before they upgrade it again? My wife banks online with NatWest on the same iPad and that works perfectly well. If all of the others can provide an updated app which works on older iPads, why can’t Lloyds?”
Why indeed. A quick check online showed that so far, only the iPad apps for Lloyds Banking Group brands (including Halifax and Bank of Scotland) had such a high requirement. Barclays is the next highest at 9.3, all of the major high street banks require iOS 9 or higher, and Nationwide and Atom Bank’s iPad apps will work with iOS 8 and above.
No doubt all of the other banking apps will also increase their operating system requirements in time. Apple has already released an even higher software version, iOS 11, and is due to roll out iOS 12 later this year. Banking contacts tell me that due to huge concerns about online security, they have a duty to keep up with the latest software, even if the pace of change is faster than some would like.
But having shelled out hundreds of pounds for a tablet that is still in perfect working order, Mr Evans and others in his predicament are finding the speed of technological obsolescence frustrating, to say the least.
He isn’t the only Lloyds customer to be caught out by the changes. Others have taken to Twitter to voice their displeasure. And when Mr Evans was on the phone to the bank’s complaints team, the call handler said: “We’ve got lots of customer complaints about the same matter.”
Mr Evans was told that he could use the iPhone app (which requires iOS 9 or higher), but he prefers the iPad’s larger screen size. He could continue to bank on the iPad if he abandoned the app and logged in through an internet browser. But he worries this would be less secure, noting Lloyds’ boast on the App Store that it contains “built-in extra security technology to keep your banking details safe and private”.
So I contacted Lloyds to see what it had to say for itself. The bank said that “a small number of customers” were having issues, but confirmed that the iPad app required iOS 10 “to ensure that the full functionality remains intact for customer use”.
I relayed this response to Mr Evans in Suffolk, who replied that after an incredible 47 years of banking with Lloyds, he was going to switch to a bank whose app actually worked on his iPad.
This was not the end of the story, however, as a fresh statement from Lloyds arrived the next day. “We can confirm that customers using iOS 9 will now be able to access and use the full range of functionality of the app. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
That’s right — although they originally said it was not possible, now Mr Evans and other Lloyds customers using older iPads will be able to re-download the app and continue as they were.
Lloyds confirmed that this would also be the case for users of Halifax and Bank of Scotland apps.
A welcome development — but how much longer will your tablet or smartphone be compatible with your bank’s technology?
The case highlights how the replacement costs of technology needed for online banking should be an important part of the debate surrounding Britain’s vanishing branch network.
For many FT readers like Mr Evans, buying a new device (however frustrating this may be) will not break the bank. But the financial impact on more vulnerable customers — including the elderly and the less well off, who tend to be reliant on traditional in-branch services — will be far greater.
Claer Barrett is the editor of FT Money; email@example.com; Twitter: @Claerb