Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Tesco - not the first places you think of to invest your savings. However, according to a survey by MORI Financial Services, 20% of all new savings accounts in the last 12 months were opened with supermarkets. Now these superbrands are trying to repeat their success stories in the mortgage, pension fund, insurance and, perhaps eventually, electricity supply sectors - but are they really doing consumers a favour?
The prevailing view is that greater competition yields immediate benefits for the consumer. 'Well-respected and trusted brands can eliminate uncertainty and confusion,' says Phil Telford, senior policy researcher at The Consumers' Association. The 'reassurance' factor of a brand is highly prized in any sector that engenders deep mistrust among consumers, he says. The potential for superbrands to muscle in is huge. Over 2.5 million customers are unhappy with their banks, a recent survey for Abbey National revealed.
More tangibly, the superbrands are able to offer more competitive interest rates - due to lower operating costs - and more user-friendly opening hours. 'New players in dull, old markets shake things up,' according to Matthew Kingdon, a partner of What If, the research and product development firm. Just as First Direct's 24-hour telephone service introduced the notion of direct banking to the sector, the friendly retail values of, say, a Sainsbury's or Tesco should, in the same way, help to shed the stuffy, unapproachable image of banks, he says. Banks are already being forced to pay more reasonable interest on accounts, to drop fees on authorised overdrafts or to make their branches look more like shops.