SINGAPORE: Local banks have received “overwhelming” demand for time slots to exchange new notes ahead of Chinese New Year in February.
Their online reservation systems, which opened for the first round of booking on Monday (Jan 18), saw huge spikes in user traffic compared to last year, with slots being snapped up quickly.
Some customers of DBS and OCBC also told CNA that they experienced issues with the banks’ websites soon after reservations opened at 9am.
Making an appointment for the exchange of new notes at bank branches were made compulsory this year to avoid having long queues amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Only those aged 60 and above and people with disabilities are allowed to walk in without reservations, said the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) on Jan 11.
READ: MAS encourages use of e-hongbao for Chinese New Year; online reservation required for new notes from some banks
Ms Sabrina Cai was one of those who tried but failed to get a reservation on Monday morning.
“I managed to log in to DBS’ website at 9.03am. I got to select a timing and a branch but when I clicked on ‘next’, it said service temporarily unavailable. I kept refreshing. By 9.15am, the website is totally down. I couldn’t go in to choose a branch or timing anymore.”
The stay-home mum then turned to OCBC but also faced issues logging into the platform.
“Every year I will help my parents to exchange new notes so this is not my first time doing an online reservation. But last year was so much easier,” Ms Cai told CNA.
It was a similar story for Ms Evonne Wang, who experienced the same difficulties on DBS’ platform within minutes of logging in at 9am.
“After selecting the branch and timing you want, the whole system hangs and tells you there’s an error. We kept on trying, but the system was jammed.”
The 31-year-old administrator then tried helping her mother to secure a slot with another bank, but did not manage to as it required an Internet banking account.
It was much later in the day that she secured a slot at OCBC. “It was chaos,” Ms Wang recalled.
DBS said its slots for Jan 25 to 29 ran out by Monday morning. There was “overwhelming interest”, with the number of customers logging on to its reservation platform being four times that of last year.
Its spokesperson did not comment when asked about the technical issues encountered by some users.
OCBC noted “a surge of customers trying to log in” on Monday, resulting in “some customers being unable to make their bookings”.
“The issue was resolved in about an hour, after which customers were able to log in to reserve their slots. We apologise for the inconvenience caused to our customers,” said Ms Jean Oh, head of branch service and risk management.
At UOB, reservation slots for the first week of collection are also fully taken up. The volume of online reservations for new notes quadrupled this year compared to a year ago, said its head of group personal financial services Jacquelyn Tan.
The three local banks will put out the second round of reservation slots this weekend.
They have also rolled out promotions and other initiatives to nudge more people to consider digital red packets, or hongbao, as an alternative.
Those whom CNA spoke with said they understood and agreed with the need for appointments given the pandemic, but wondered if the banks’ systems should have been better prepared.
Ms Marilyn Hong, 35, said the exchange of new notes could have begun earlier given the need for COVID-19 restrictions.
“There will always be demand since it’s a tradition, so why not spread out the dates and times by making this available before January?”
Ms Cai, who is expecting, finds it “a little disappointing” that pregnant women are not included in the list for walk-ins. Tasked with helping her elderly parents get hold of new bank notes this Chinese New Year, she intends to be up early for the next round of reservations.
“I will probably need to be on standby before 9am, keep refreshing my page and hopefully get everything done fast,” she said.
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SECOND ROUND OF RESERVATIONS
The next round of online booking for account holders of the three local banks will kick off this weekend, with OCBC’s starting on Jan 23.
“From Jan 23 to Feb 6, depending on availability of new notes, we will also be opening up more slots every day for our customers to collect their new notes,” said Ms Oh from OCBC.
DBS and UOB will release more slots from Jan 24.
Said UOB’s Ms Tan: “To help customers reserve their notes, we will continue to release reservation slots each week starting on Jan 24 and 31, and our online reservation portal will close once the slots are filled.”
DBS said more slots will be available for reservation in the second window starting Jan 24.
Overall, the bank has doubled its number of online reservation slots this year and extending collection hours for those with reservation slots by two hours per day, it said in an earlier press release.
New notes can also be withdrawn without reservations at 61 ATMs run by DBS and POSB across 41 locations, starting from Jan 25. This is up from 40 of such ATMs at 20 locations last year.
To help customers avoid crowded areas, DBS said its ATM map locator will include guidance on estimated wait times at each location.
READ: More red packets recycled due to specialised efforts, increased digital transfers over Chinese New Year
‘HUAT’ ABOUT E-HONGBAO?
The MAS is also urging Singaporeans to switch to e-hongbao this year, noting that they are safer and more environmentally sustainable.
For instance, carbon emissions generated by the production of new notes for each Chinese New Year are estimated to be about 330 tonnes. That is equivalent to the emissions from charging one smartphone for every Singaporean resident for five days, the regulator said.
Going by statistics, the gifting of e-hongbao seems to be on an uptrend in recent years.
For instance, at UOB, the value and volume of PayNow transactions made during Chinese New Year have gone up by nearly double over the past two years, said Ms Tan.
Millennials were the biggest users, with those between 21 and 40 years old accounting for 70 per cent of the PayNow transactions made during last year’s Chinese New Year.
READ: Commentary: Why tradition still trumps tech this Chinese New Year
The idea of cash gifting via PayNow may also be gaining popularity among older customers.
UOB observed a 209 per cent surge in such transactions made by those between 51 and 70 years old during Chinese New Year last year, compared with a year ago. The value of their PayNow transactions also increased by 232 per cent.
“We expect this trend to increase this year,” said Ms Tan.
At DBS, the average amount sent via the bank’s eGift service during Chinese New Year has increased from S$36 in 2019 to S$47 last year. This as customers become increasingly confident about sending money via digital means, said the spokesperson.
Similarly, the number of DBS QR Gift cards that were used during the festive season last year tripled from the previous year. The total amount loaded on these cards also nearly doubled to S$2.8 million.
Introduced in 2019, the DBS QR Gift allows customers to scan a physical QR Gift card so as to send or receive an e-hongbao.
This option, described by the bank as a “QR angbao”, is making a return this year as it is “cognizant that a large segment of customers still treasure the meaningful tradition of giving and receiving red packets”.
“We continue to see high adoption and usage of our digital banking services since the onset of COVID-19, as Singaporeans are not only shifting to but also sticking with their mobile phones and online platforms for everyday payment and banking needs,” added the spokesperson.
“We expect the usage of DBS QR Gift and DBS eGift to follow similar trends.”
For OCBC and UOB, customers will be able to choose designs and graphics for their e-hongbao and include festive greetings this year.
Most people CNA spoke with agreed that e-hongbao can be an alternative amid COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings. They are also willing to use them for the more tech-savvy younger generation at home.
But there are also those who believe in sticking with tradition.
“My parents are not that tech savvy so asking them to switch to e-hongbao will be a challenge. They will still prefer having new notes and the process of giving the hongbao as a form of blessing," said Ms Hong.
"It can be an alternative for this year ... but I hope when this is over, hongbao will still be around."