Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
DM: Chances are, if you walk into the bank, you look around and you’re not going to see a lot of services or prices. You have to kind of know what you want going in there.
RM: Or you have to talk with someone to help you figure it out.
DM: If you think about it, it’s like if you went to a restaurant and 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, “uh, Italian?” and then you have a conversation about what they could provide and the seventeen different sauces they could offer and all the different shapes of pasta. A reasonable person might think it would be kind of nice to have a menu.
RM: Doug McGray is a journalist
DM: My name is Douglas McGray, I’m a fellow at the New American Foundation and I am the editor in cheif of Pop-Up Magazine.
RM: And a couple of years ago, he wrote a story about check cashers and payday lenders, which McGray is quick to point out, these are different services. Check cashing is when you have a check, it’s made out to you.
DM: You go in with a check, you leave with cash.
RM: Minus a 3% fee or so. And payday lending is when you don’t have any money. So you write the payday lender a check.
DM: For $350 and you get $300. And they cash it in two weeks.
RM: Those are the much more problematic transactions, if you happen to think charging 400% interest is bad for the working poor. But McGray found that, for better or for worse.
DM: You know I think it’s mostly for worse.
RM: 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,
DM: If it’s a person who is used to the banks, they’re going to think they’re a little bit grimey.
RM: Is that these check cashing stores, even with their problems.
DM: The fees are too high, I can’t say that enough. You know, the fees, most of them are too high.
RM: May teach banks something about using design to better serve a wider range of customers. The absense of the bank-like trappings: plush carpeting, ferns, big desks, suits- they’re missing for a reason. When Doug McGray went of 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.
DM: 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. If he walks across the carpeted floor, he’s going to feel like a jerk. I don’t know if he was righ or wrong, but it was an interesting point. And it was conscious choice, you know? They would not put down carpeting.
RM: Nix also worked really hard to make his places seem just like retail.
DM: It reminds me a lot of a corner store, only instead of selling chips and soda and stuff like that, it’s financial services.
RM: And everyone patronizes and is welcome at a corner store, rich and poor. And you know what everything costs.
DM: One of the most important things, maybe the most important thing, at this chain of check cashers, and you’ll see this at a lot of them, there was a big list of prices on the wall. And it was all really straight forward, and 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 talk to people who chose to go to check cashers, a lot of them had had a bank at one point, they signed up for some 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.
RM: Plus you aren’t paralyzed by the vast number of options available to you.
DM: If you go to your bank, chances are they’ll have like five different savings accounts and five different checking accounts. They’ll have all these investment accounts, they’ll have college savings accounts. It’s a research project. It’s hard to figure out which one is right for you.
RM: And I, for one, always seem to leave with the feeling that I picked the wrong one.
DM: 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.
RM: Let’s pretend that you’ve never been to a bank before.
DM: I think some banks are realizing that their cookie-cutter, suburban branch, they can’t drop it down and have it work everywhere. You know? It’s one thing if you opened a bank account with your parents when you were 8 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. All this 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.
RM: 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar: making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org