The mobile branch did not come this week. So what?

Andra Sonea
5 min readNov 26, 2019

This is the third story in the “So what?” series of stories which have either inspired my research this year or which I discovered through my research.

For the full report on measuring access to banking in the UK, go here.

#SoWhat 1. “For 70 years old, wheelchair bound Tim, the taxi ride to the bank costs 16GBP. So what?

#SoWhat 2. A mobile branch van will stop on Tuesday for 5 minutes in the nearby village. So what?

If you did not read the previous post on the growing phenomenon of mobile branches in the UK, for reading this post it is enough to know that:

- there are only four banks in the UK which deploy mobile branches: RBS and BOS in Scotland and LBG and Natwest in England and Wales.

- A mobile branch has a significantly reduced capability compared to a normal physical branch or otherwise said, it offers a very limited range of services on a very short schedule.

In the reactions to my previous post I perceived a sort of enthusiasm towards the said mobile branches which I have to say, surprised me. It is true that I spent quite a lot of time looking at the maps and Open Banking API outputs and for me the overall picture was not exciting at all. So, this post is made out mostly tweets of people highlighting the problems they have in this new world of mobile branches and also suggesting possible solutions. Only if someone would listen.

1. When is the wee van in Stonehaven?

Yes, indeed, when? This is the most common question addressed to banks regarding the mobile branches. Are they still coming? I’ve seen the van at Lidl, did they change the place? Last week they did not turn up, will they come this week?

Imagine yourself in a rural cash based economy, organising your life around a van which might or might not come this week in a Co-op (usually) parking lot somewhere 10 miles away from you.

2. The van did not show up today

Why the van did not show up as scheduled, is the next most common question. This is not however a minor nuisance for a number of reasons:

  • people drive from great distance to go to the parking lot where the mobile van is schedule to come
  • they wait there quite a while until they give up waiting
  • they are not sure if this is a worthwhile exercise the following week
  • those waiting are usually small business owners and they waste precious time whihc costs them money

Examples abound on twitter of such situations.

3. The customer incurs charges

Even when the mobile branch turns up, the fact that the cash deposits, checks and the payments to account are credited with 24h to 48h delay is a big problem for some customers who do not have a cash margin to insulate them from “late payment” charges. From the point of view of the customer, their money are with the bank however they still incur the charges.

The mobile van seems to be a glorified safe on wheels.

4. Accessible branches

Jane looks for an accessible RBS branch within 5 miles of SK14. Checking my map for RBS branches, I can see immediately that there are none however RBS customer services sends her to check for herself. The point is that a mobile branch would not have been a solution either because the mobile vans are not accessible.

No RBS branches within 5 miles of SK14. Zoom on this map if you want to explore your area.

4. The mobile van stops for 5 minutes per week

I don’t have a tweet for this but I have a graph. Each point on the graph below represents a RBS mobile branch stop. On the y-axis we have the latitude which tells us that we look at Scotland here. On the x-axis we have the “capacity” a.k.a. the proportion of opening hours out of 46.5 h, the usual weekly open hours of a physical branch. You notice that most mobile branches have a capacity close to zero. In fact, the total of mobile branch stops, as per Open Banking API in Nov’19, sums to capacity of 5.72 so less than 6 full time physical branches.

RBS Mobile branches according to their Open Banking API, Nov ’19 y-axis: Latitude x-axis: capacity. For a dynamic graph, see the example in the technical section

Apparently RBS has 542 mobile branch stops in Nov ’19. In February ’19 the same API returned 939 mobile branches stops. I am inclined to believe that the output was wrong in Feb ’19 rather than that they have stopped servicing 397 stops.

39% of the mobile branches open between 5 min and 15 minutes per week. My question would be what services can de done in this interval and how many customers they can serve. If you want to have a feel for how capacity looks in space, check this map. Once you are in, it look like the figure below but it lets you zoom in and choose the points you are interested in. The size of the dot is proportional with the capacity so the mobile branches appear as tiny almost invisible dots. Enjoy..

Screenshot RBS branches map, Nov ‘19

People have (some) solutions. Just listen.

  1. deposit accepting ATMs

It is true that most branches are not used for mortgage applications but for cash related functions: depositing cash, withdrawing larger amounts of cash, coin exchange. For this, one might not need a full physical branch but you definitely need something more than a mobile van turning for 5 mins per week somewhere in a parking lot.

2. have dynamic info in the app or on your website with the actual schedule of the vans

Ok, this is my suggestion and I do not have a tweet for it. After spending however quite some time looking at Twitter complaints and questions about mobile branches, my suggestion is the following. Have a simple app (if you want if not a feature in your already heavy app) where customers can run a search function for the closest OPEN mobile branch in their area in a certain time interval. People don’t sit at home waiting for the van to come with nothing to do, but they are mobile in a certain area and downloading pdfs from bank’s website is not good UX isn’t it?

3. I’ll come back w more but I promised Gary Fegan that I’ll write this today. Thanks for the push!

Technical stuff

If you want to see for yourself the maps of mobile and physical branches, I have uploaded here a jupyter notebook with an example for Lloyds Banking Group: TFI_AccessToBanking/Example LBG_extraction_capacity_visualisation.ipynb

I’ve chosen LBG out of the four possible brands because they have a good developer portal, they have a reliable API, producing a good quality output which is not necessarily the case for others which every month would require some tweaking.