Between January and September 2014, town centres across the UK saw 964 shop closures - two-and-a-half times the amount recorded for the whole of 2013, according to a study by accountancy firm PwC. This has led many to question what it is that consumers actually want, and how financial institutions such as ours can tailor their offering accordingly.
In Principality Building Society's experience, while our service delivery must undoubtedly continue to evolve to meet the rapidly changing needs of the digital economy, the fundamental basics of what customers want remain the same.
They quite rightly demand a high quality of service from a brand they can relate to, and that they believe in and trust implicitly. Within this also lies the right to be able to communicate with a company in whichever way suits them, and on this basis the power of human interaction for a customer mustn't be underestimated.
With this in mind, as a business we have remained committed to the high street, having recently opened our 71st high street outlet in Chepstow. As this demonstrates, as long as our customers demand advice and service on the high street we will continue to try and meet this need, with a friendly face, rather than an automated or remote service. This remains core to our offering as a local, community-focused and mutually-owned building society.
As Wales' - and the UK's sixth - largest building society, our Members' financial needs remain at the heart of everything we do, and we see the fact that our high street presence continues to go from strength to strength as no coincidence - more a reflection of the power the consumer retains through simply voting with their feet.
This sentiment was reflected in the announcement of Principality's annual results for 2014, released earlier this month, which showed our continued commitment to retaining our strong hold on the high street, and our wider support of community causes through this branch network.
If there was any concern about the prosperity of the mutually-owned finance sector following the near-collapse of the Co-op Bank, Principality is proving the opposite by continuing to thrive and grow for the benefit of our Members. Our annual results demonstrate that it's been another successful year financially. In 2014, we grew our assets to £7.3bn (2013: £7.1bn) and net retail mortgage balances to £4.8bn (2013: £4.5bn), while being upgraded and awarded a positive outlook by Moody's Investors Service. Our profits before tax on continuing operations also grew to £53.5m (2013: £28.2m), which will allow us to invest in the business for the future and help us meet capital requirement s from UK and European regulators.
Alongside these substantial successes, we remain mindful that community is the reason we exist. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, so alongside the delivery of 1600 hours of staff volunteering, in the past year Principality also invested more than £40,000 into local communities in Wales and the borders, raising £86,000 for our staff voted Charity of the Year, MS Society Cymru, as well as being awarded a number of community and industry awards.
In the same period, we kept above-average savings rates** and retained the most recommended savings provider in Wales*** title for the second year running. Adding to this, we have also helped more than 2,300 first-time buyers get the all-important first leg up onto the property ladder.
Clearly then, there are many ways that continued engagement with our Members in communities across Wales and the borders has seen Principality continue to prosper economically throughout 2014.
It is with optimism and thanks, therefore, that we can enter the coming financial year with a continued mission to protect our assets, grow our profits, and preserve our presence on the high street, for the sake of our much valued Members and the communities they represent.
**Source: CACI Current Account and Savings Market Database (CSDB)
***Source: GfK NOP Financial Research Survey (FRS), 12 months ending December 2014, NPS measure of 2,357 Welsh savings account customers. Competitor list includes the following: Barclays, Halifax, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, NatWest, Nationwide, NS&I, Santander, TSB