Episode 18 Check Cashing Stores
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ROMAN MARS: Let’s pretend you’ve never been to a bank before. Douglas McGray is going to be our guide.
DOUGLAS MCGRAY: You walk through the door, you see the red carpeting, you see someone in a suit. They may be greeting you. You see some ferns. You know, a nice row of professional-looking people behind the counter.
ROMAN MARS: You don’t really see what it is they offer.
MCGRAY: Chances are if you walk into the bank and look around, you aren’t going to see services or prices. You have to kind of know what you want going in there.
ROMAN MARS: Or you have to talk with someone to figure it out.
MCGRAY: If you think about it, if you went to a restaurant … there’s no menu on the door, and you walk inside, and instead of giving you a menu they ask, “What do you want?” And you go, “Italian?” And then you have a conversation about what they could provide, and the 17 different sauces they could offer, and all the different shapes of pasta. A reasonable person might think it might be kind of nice to have a menu.
ROMAN MARS: Doug McGray is a journalist.
ROMAN MARS: And a couple of years ago he wrote a story about check cashers and pay-day lenders. McGray found that for better or worse…
MCGRAY: You know, I think it’s mostly for worse.
ROMAN MARS: …these places are here to stay. What may surprise you, though, if you have the same visceral reaction that I used to have to them…
MCGRAY: If it’s a person who’s used to going to banks, they’re going to think they’re a little bit grimey.
ROMAN MARS: …is that these check-cashing stores, even with their problems…
MCGRAY: The fees are too high. I can’t say that enough. You know, the fees, most of them are too high.
ROMAN MARS: …may teach banks something about using design to serve a wider range of customers.
MCGRAY: The absence of the bank-like trappings – plush carpeting, ferns, big desks, suits – they’re missing for a reason.
ROMAN MARS: When Doug McGray went on a tour of a branch with Tom Nix, who at the time, was the owner of the largest chain of check-cashing stores in Southern California, Nix pointed out the design choices he made.
MCGRAY: And he pointed out the linoleum floor. And he said, “You know, if you go into a bank, you’re going to see a carpeted floor. And say a guy is coming off of his construction shift, he’s in his work boots, he walks across the carpeted floor, he’s going to feel like a jerk.” I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but it was an interesting point. And it was a conscious choice. They would not put down carpeting.
ROMAN MARS: Nix also worked really hard to make his places seem just like retail…
MCGRAY: It reminds me a lot of a corner store, only instead of selling chips and soda and stuff like that, it’s financial services.
ROMAN MARS: And everyone patronizes and is welcome at a corner store, rich and poor, and you know what everything costs.
MCGRAY: One of the most important things, maybe the most important things at this chain of check cashes, and you’ll see them at a lot of them, there was a big list of prices on the wall. And it was all really straightforward. And the prices for the most part, the prices were too high, but you weren’t going to wonder what something was going to cost. You weren’t going to wonder what they could do for you. And when I talked to people who chose to go to check cashers, a lot of them had had a bank at one point, they had signed up for a free checking account, but then all of a sudden they had these fees, and they would like read these statements that were pages long and they couldn’t figure out why they were getting charged what they were getting charged.
ROMAN MARS: Plus, you weren’t paralyzed by the vast number of options available to you.
MCGRAY: If you go to your bank chances are they’ll have like five different savings accounts; they’ll have five different checking accounts; they’ll have all these investment accounts; college savings accounts. You know, it’s a research project. It’s hard to figure out which one is right for you.
ROMAN MARS: I, for one, always seem to leave with the feeling that I picked the wrong one.
MCGRAY: The check cashers and payday lenders, they’ll have a bunch of different services, but there will only be one of each. So you can cash your checks and it costs this much. You can wire money to your family in another country and it costs this much. It’s all designed to be really simple.
ROMAN MARS: Let’s pretend you’ve never been to a bank before.
MCGRAY: I think some banks are realizing that their cookie-cutter suburban branch, they can’t drop it down and have it work everywhere. It’s one thing if you opened a bank account with your parents when you were eight years old and you’ve been going there forever. And all the weirdness of a bank, the no prices, and the pamphlets and the ferns, like all the stuff that’s kind of strange about a bank when you think about it – it’s just normal because that’s what a bank is. Well, if you don’t know what a bank is, if it’s not normal, then maybe it’s weird.