It's unsurprising but still sad. Another business this week announced it's shutting brick-and-mortar outlets in favour of phone and online communication.
ASB said it would close nine branches and reduce hours for 25 others to three days a week. Among outlets set to close is one in Papamoa.
The bank's retail manager told NZME changes were happening due to "ongoing moves to digital banking" as well as more customers using digital channels during the Covid-19 lockdown. Digital channels mean phone and online systems.
I recently had first-hand experience with how these digital channels work. Or don't.
I tried calling ASB several times to ask about setting a code for my teenagers' new debit cards. A recording said, "We're here to help, however please be aware that our wait times are currently longer than usual." I gave up after 12 minutes on hold. Two days later, we visited the bank branch at Bayfair, where an employee did not place me on hold but instead resolved the issue in fewer than five minutes.
It's a reminder that businesses wanting clients to interact remotely need systems in place to ensure customers' queries and problems are handled promptly. Whoever has the least convoluted phone system and shortest hold times gets my vote. More importantly, they get my money.
We don't tolerate being on hold for long. According to a 2017 study by virtual customer management company Arise, almost two-thirds of respondents said they would wait two minutes or less on hold. Apparently patience shrinks with age: 74 per cent of those 65 and over would not wait even two minutes.
Here's another thing many of us want: call centres based in New Zealand, or better yet, local. How reassuring is it to hear the voice on the phone commiserate about the Bay's weather, rather than Auckland's or Mumbai's?
In this time of rising unemployment, supporting local businesses is more than a catchphrase, it's crucial. Sometimes, this means asking where your utility company or mobile phone provider services client calls, and even where your accountant computes your taxes (some firms send work to overseas subcontractors: an article in Forbes.com in 2018 said the practice is known within the industry but rarely discussed publicly. And yes, it's happening here, too).
I get why many businesses would mothball physical spaces: paying for rent, power and maintenance could be non-essential expenses if employees can satisfy customer needs and wants from home. Provided they're fortunate enough to still be trading.
Many companies will not simply swap physical doors for online portals; they have or will shut for good, thanks largely to the effects of lockdown. We reported last month around 6700 retail businesses were at risk of closing this year, but that total could rise to more than 17,000. A Retail NZ spokesman said most businesses facing closure were doing okay before lockdown.
Even though we're back in the world spending money with various degrees of caution, the damage was done. During March and April, retail revenue plummeted an average of 80 per cent. It was a body blow many businesses couldn't shake.
Those still trading have a duty to clients to provide service that suits their needs. Sending us to a chat bot or allowing us to wait on hold for 10, 20, 30 minutes? Unacceptable. Don't tell us you're efficient - show us how it's done. In some cases, it could require hiring more call centre employees or investing in more training so questions can be answered quickly without handing callers to other staff members, like an interminable game of Pass the Parcel.
A popular theory among retail experts is chain stores have too many outlets, and physical locations of the future will mainly market goods, rather than sell them. There's still a place for shops - many of us want to feel the fabric, try the dress, see the chair or dishes before clicking or swiping to buy.
An article in retaildive.com said retail can't thrive without brick and mortar stores, in part because e-commerce is dull, inefficient and fails to spur impulse buys the way in-person shopping does. Compare your last supermarket trip to a recent online grocery shop (if you do that sort of thing). If you're like me, your physical trolley is loaded with 30 items instead of the 12 on your list. I either see things I forgot I needed while parading the aisles, or grab something I want because it's there and when's the last time I bought chocolate-coated digestive biscuits, anyways?
Credit Suisse analyst Michael Binetti told retaildive.com,"Eighty per cent of people still set aside time to get in a car and go to a store to purchase something that they could have gotten online." Binetti described retail in the e-commerce age as "a game of starting points".
We expect more business will be done virtually in the coming months and years. Many of us are already well-versed in navigating digital systems, chatting with bots and actual humans online and lodging queries via email. Businesses will continue nudging us to pay and stay away.
I can play the game - for a while. Eventually, I'll get my face-to-face fix at a location where no one asks me to press '1' or '#,' and the only thing on hold is a shopping bag.