Shopping and Banking on Wheels: New Service Trialed in Nagano to Facilitate Life in Remote Areas

Lifestyle

Elderly drivers in Japan are being urged to hand in their driver’s licenses, but this can be problematic in rural areas with little public transportation. Residents in a remote district in Nagano Prefecture hope new mobile shopping and banking services can offer solutions.

Convenience Convoy

Outside a FamilyMart convenience store run by the Japan Agricultural Cooperative (JA) branch in Ina, Nagano Prefecture, staff load a small truck with merchandise. The vehicle is one of three mobile outlets that serve remote communities. Today the truck is heading to the rugged Takatō district, a 40-minute drive away.

The FamilyMart truck is set to rendezvous with another vehicle, this one a mobile bank operated by the Kamiina branch of JA Bank. By the time the convenience store on wheels arrives on the scene, the steps leading into the mobile bank are already deployed and staff are busily preparing for business.

The mobile bank (left) and FamilyMart truck serve customers in remote areas.

Management at the JA Bank in Kamiina has recently decided to shut down nine smaller branches by April 2020 and also reduce the number of automated teller machines as part of a network reorganization. As a transitional measure, it started operating two mobile branches in April this year.

Mikoshiba Shigeki, head of the JA branch in Kamiina, says all the branches slated to be shuttered are in mountainous areas. However, the bank on wheels aims to provide residents with continued access to vital financial services.

As remote communities face bleak demographic futures, the JA Bank is not the only business to be shutting down. Nearby shops have also closed their doors, leaving residents with few options for meeting their daily shopping needs. The mobile convenience store and bank make the rounds together, visiting two locations every day. The services are still in the trial stage, but the approach may offer clues for how municipalities can support residents as rural populations dwindle.

Reactions to the new arrangement have been positive so far. Older customers have given the mobile services high marks for convenience and for the fact that the two trucks come together, making it easy to do their shopping and banking in one location.

The mobile bank offers almost all the services available at brick-and-mortar branches. An added advantage is that unlike ATMs, face-to-face encounters with a teller can help protect customers from telephone scams targeting seniors, a persistent problem in Japan.

Mikoshiba explains how it works: “If a customer intends to withdraw an unusually large sum, the teller may discreetly inquire what the money is for. If their story sounds fishy, the bank can call the police and help prevent the person from being victimized.”

One customer at the mobile bank, a woman in her 60s, confesses she prefers human interaction to using an ATM. “I can talk directly to a teller who can answer any questions I might have,” she declares.

Seniors In a Quandary Over Continuing to Drive

The two vehicles next head to Tatsuno, another village tucked away in the mountains. Nakamura Tomoko, a 71-year-old woman who lives with her son’s family and helps out at the small restaurant they operate nearby, ambles over to the convenience store truck. It is the first visit by the mobile FamilyMart to the community, and after perusing the selection Nakamura buys a bean bun for her lunch.

Nakamura says she still relies on her car to do her shopping, but realizes that there will eventually come a time when she will have to give up driving.

“When I hear about elderly drivers having traffic accidents, I wonder how much longer I can keep driving myself,” she ponders. “I feel a little better now that the convenience store truck will be coming. I certainly hope this service continues.”

Planners of the service initially saw it as a way to make life in rural communities a little more convenient for residents. However, having the two vehicles make the rounds of villages has had an unexpected benefit of creating lively community meeting places.

“Many residents in these remote areas are elderly, and there’s a lot of talk about whether they can keep to their daily routines after handing in their driver’s licenses,” notes Mikoshiba. “The trucks provide them an opportunity to get together and talk with neighbors. I hope the trial service opens other opportunities for encouraging communication in local communities.”

Managers at the JA Bank in Kamiina have recognized the positive impact that contact with tellers has had on elderly customers and plan to add another truck to the fleet. With three mobile banks available, vehicles will be able to make the rounds with the FamilyMart trucks, making life more convenient and stimulating interaction in remote communities.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on July 15, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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