STOCKHOLM — If you’re looking for Swedish cash, don’t go to a Swedish bank.
Most of the country’s biggest lenders, SEB, Swedbank and Nordea Bank, have stopped manual cash-handling services in 65 to 75 percent of their local branches. They say cash is out as Swedes rely on credit cards, the Internet and mobile phones to make all their payments.
The country’s bank notes are adorned with images of famous Swedes, including botanist Carl Linnaeus and, soon, legendary actress Greta Garbo. But they’re used in only about 20 percent of shop transactions, according to data from the Swedish Trade Federation.
“We’ve removed the manual cash handling simply because we’re seeing a change in behavior among our customers,” Swedbank spokeswoman Anna Sundblad said in an email. “Only 5 percent of our customers make over-the- counter cash transactions.”
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Customer demand for cash services at Nordea, Scandinavia’s biggest bank, is dropping by about 20 percent a year, spokesman Erik Durhan said. According to Nordea Chairman Bjoern Wahlroos, the end of cash is a natural next step in an evolutionary process that has already led to the extinction of checkbooks. In this respect, Scandinavia is far ahead of Britain and the United States, he said.
“The Nordic countries did away with the check about 30 years ago, whereas if you look at the U.S. you still pay by check, and even in Britain people still use checks,” Wahlroos said in an interview last month. “It’s only logical that if we did away with the check 30 years ago, we’re starting to do away with coins and bills today.”
The banks say removing cash-handling services is helping them cut costs. They’re also profiting from their card business. SEB’s reported fee income from its card operations rose 8 percent to 4.37 billion kronor ($683 million) for last year. SEB has shut down 70 percent of its manual cash-handling services in Sweden, spokeswoman Anna Helsen said.
Of Sweden’s four biggest banks, Svenska Handelsbanken alone still offers cash-handling services at all its 461 branches. It will continue to do so as long as there is demand, bank spokesman Henrik Westman said.
That customer service comes at a price. Most of the recent reported bank robberies in Sweden were at Handelsbanken branches. Overall in Sweden, steps by other banks to remove cash from their branches have led to a decline in robberies, with only five incidents last year, compared with 16 in 2011, according to the Swedish Bankers’ Association.
The Financial Sector Union of Sweden, which represents employees in the country’s financial industry, is pushing to get rid of cash altogether, a step it says will make banking safer.
The cost of keeping cash amounted to 0.26 percent of Sweden’s gross domestic product in 2009, compared with 0.19 percent for credit cards and 0.09 percent for debit cards, according to a KTH Royal Institute of Technology report published in January.
Shops are also trying to cut their use of paper money. Swedish bedding retailer Kungsaengen and mobile phone chain 3 are phasing out cash in their stores. So is TeliaSonera, which stopped accepting cash payments in its Swedish stores in September, said spokesman Nicolas Rundbom.
In Sweden, the number of card payments “is increasing continuously and for 10 years we’ve seen strong growth, which we expect will continue,” said Bengt Nilervall, head of payments at the Swedish Trade Federation. “Many European countries are far behind.”