Strong Uptake of Internet Banking in WA

June 28th, 2001 Business News, Tech Features

Melbourne business think tank and business statistics cruncher the Market Intelligence Strategy Centre released a report last week about the number of Australians using Internet banking, and West Australians are among the top users nationwide.

Using data collected from the four major banks, Suncorp-Metway and Bendigo Bank, 2.8 million Australian have taken up the technology, a 24 per cent rise from the December quarter.

And of those, over 11 per cent of West Australians are signed up, as opposed to 9.4 per cent in NSW and 8.8 per cent in Victoria. The ACT is the leader at 13 per cent.

The reason, as theorised by the banks and small businesses, is the predominantly rural and far-flung population.

"The Australian rural sector has always been quick to take up new technology," says Julia Quinn, spokesperson for Challenge Bank, Westpac’s WA arm, "It’s the ultimate convenience. In some places it takes a couple of hours to get into town.

"A lot of Internet banking users are small businesspeople who do their books and their business banking at night over the net. They just can’t wait for Monday morning because during the day they have to be doing whatever their business is."

George Etrelezis, General Manager of the Small Business Development Corporation, agrees. "They can access bank information at a time that suits them," he says, "Also, they can access information straight away whereas before you’d have to wait a day or two and then pay a fee for it."

So do the banks have a long term goal of getting people out of branches and on the phone or the Internet (particularly as they’re often in hot water over branch closures — whose presence in Australia has declined 28 per cent over the last seven years according to one report)?

According to Fiona Kalaf of the Commonwealth Bank, it’s a moot point, as banking customers are already doing it themselves, and the banks are just giving the people what they want.

"Over 80% of bank transactions are done electronically," she says, "be it over the phone, Internet or at an ATM or EFTPOS point. We simply provide customers with flexibility. The Internet and Bpay allows customers to pay bills, schedule bill payments for up to a year, all at a time and place that suits them.

Challenge Bank’s Julia Quinn agrees. "We encourage people to do things the self service way because it’s cheaper, for sure," she says, "but people are embracing the choice. There’ll always be a need for branches, because a lot of people want to deal face to face if it’s a mortgage or term deposit issue."

The costs mostly speak for themselves. Challenge Bank’s Classic account, for example, offers a certain number of free transactions per month, after which a fee is payable — $2.50 at a branch (or with an operator over the phone) versus 25c over the Internet.

And from a small business operator’s point of view, life without branches is simply — according to the SMDC — undoable.

"We’ll never do without cash," George Etrelezis says, "Where will you get change from? You can’t get change from the Internet. There’s the security and insurance risk of having all your cash on your premises."

Owing to the bad press banks receive about fees, perhaps personal and business bank users are simply trying to avoid branches wherever possible. A report published recently in Britain has revealed that Australians pay the highest bank fees in the world second only to those in Canada, and almost two thirds again as much as US bank customers.

This large-scale avoidance of bank branches, combined with the relative isolation of many bank customers in rural states like ours, may explain why WA bank customers are among the leaders of Internet banking in the country.

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