Older crowd embraces online banking, rewards firms' digital push

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It took a global pandemic to get many baby boomers to bank online. Lenders have taken notice.

Over the past two months, Americans flocked to websites and apps to manage their finances as the coronavirus limited access to branches, according industry executives. For JPMorgan Chase, existing online clients are using the offerings more frequently, while Bank of America found that older customers are seeking out its digital services.

"We may have opened some people's eyes to the future," Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told investors at a conference last week. "We're just on a relentless push."

The coronavirus has given a boost to digital banking, which entails less paper, greater use of electronic services and fewer in-person meetings. Tech has been viewed by banks as both an offensive and defensive tool. Online services have the potential to bring in customers, help cut costly branches and pare workforces, while also making it harder for new competitors to poach clients with the allure of better technology.

In April, 23% of new logins to Bank of America's online and mobile products were by seniors and boomers, Moynihan said. They also accounted for about 20% of customers who deposited checks using mobile phones for the first time. In its business catering to wealthy people, the use of technology has risen over the last six weeks to levels that the bank projected would take six years, according to Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

One in four people surveyed by Boston Consulting Group said they plan to use branches less or stop visiting altogether when the crisis is over, according to a global poll from April 13 to April 27. The pandemic sparked 12% of the people polled to enroll in online or mobile banking.

"We've seen tremendous increases in the frequency of use," said Mindy Hauptman, a BCG partner based in Philadelphia. "If you talked to someone a year ago, they would have said digital was critical to their future. I think that's been reinforced and accelerated."

Customers were steered toward online banking for a multitude of reasons, Hauptman said. Many stayed home to comply with government orders, while others weren't able to visit branches because of closures or limited services. As clients flooded call centers to request payment deferrals and inquire about government relief programs, others opted to go online.

"This crisis is accelerating the trend toward digital banking," Goldman Sachs President John Waldron told the conference last week. That's translated to a 25% jump in active users on the bank's institutional platform, while its retail arm, Marcus, has seen a 300% surge in visits for financial articles and videos.

But the bank's move to boost online services hasn't always been smooth — it delayed until next year the digital offering for its wealth management unit.

The pace of digital adoption remains uneven. In the April survey, only 16% of respondents in the U.S. said they would use branches less often after the crisis, the lowest of any nation in the survey.

"We're a little surprised of seeing in the consumer business that the folks who are already digital are doing more of it," said JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon. "The folks who aren't digital aren't exactly picking it up. And I wish we could find a way to incent them to do that better.

Bloomberg News