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France looks for new approaches – and a new look -- to its antiquated places of saving and loaning



PARIS - Credit Agricole, a major French bank, opened the Alpha branch this week in Paris, a place where the bank's clients get to try out their new services and technological innovations billed as "the agency of the future."

But this isn't an isolated experiment, with similarly "revolutionary" initiatives multiplying in the banking business around France Banks have been investing in "money walls' and Internet-based contact for years. But now some are again rethinking the way they deal with their clients.

The most recent initiative comes from the Paris region branch of the Credit Agricole (CA) "This is not exactly what the agency of the future will be, but it will help us define what the agency of the future will be," says CA's regional director Laurent Fromageau.

The model is based on interactivity: testing new services and tech innovations directly with the client. The idea is to give them access, in the traditional 90 square meter agency, to different areas where they will be guided by an advisor. In the "advice space," clients can simulate banking operations or get commercial information through touch screens; the "e-space" features iPhones and iPads, access to Facebook and other business or banking related websites; and even a more private space with videoconference where the client can talk to an expert and very soon to his own advisor.

The agency is hoping to get up to 1,000 Alpha clients over the next six months to begin to test the concept. A Facebook account has been set up for visitors to give feedback and for expert bloggers to give their opinion.

A laboratory

"Our clients have evolved, they use their bank differently, with new technologies and social media a reality. So we also have to evolve," says Fromageau. "This is a sort of laboratory agency where we'll be working on a certain number of innovative ideas with our clients. We give them a voice. We listen to them and with them we'll be building the agency of the future." Tests will last for three years, although the easiest ideas, like videoconference, could be set up much earlier, once early tests show the best way to use it.

This model is a little different from other existing ones like BNP Paribas' 2 Opera or Credit Foncier's Foncier Home. There, architects used to working on luxury hotel lobbies were called in to work on spaces over 1,500 square meters. The size and price of the concept make it hard to copy. Credit Foncier, which invested 10 million euros in its space on Boulevard Haussmann, a prime Paris location, will limit its concept to the biggest cities if it turns out to be successful. It hopes to bring in about 400 visitors a day and 30 million euros in sales by 2013. To reach this goal, renting a small amphitheater, organizing private or business events are also part of the plan.

Credit Agricole on the other hand plans to spread its successful concepts to its entire nationwide network of 340 agencies. Currently, only Societe Generale and HSBC France have similar ideas. The British bank launched a new configuration for its branches last spring. Its flagship agency, near the Paris Opera, doesn't have security doors; the lobby has a "lounge" corner, a library, a coffee machine and TV screens wired to the Internet. Despite the major investment required, it will be copied in the 100 most important sites in France (out of 315 agencies). And there are grounds for optimism. Since it was inaugurated, the Auber agency has opened more accounts than any other branch in France.

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The Royal Mint unveiled the first coins featuring the portrait of King Charles

Chloé Touchard, Lisa Berdet, Lila Paulou and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Akkam!*

Welcome to Friday, where an attack on a line of civilian cars kills at least 25 in Ukraine, a suicide bomb attack in Kabul leaves 23 dead, and the first coins with King Charles’ portrait are unveiled. Meanwhile, Timour Ozturk reports from Istanbul for French daily Les Echos on how the historic Turkish city becomes the prime destination for Russians fleeing military conscription.

[*Oromo, Ethiopia]

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