A handful of alternative financial service providers are adding or enhancing loyalty programs to resemble perks more typical of banking relationships.
The check-cashing stores, which sell numerous financial services and often rely on high-traffic locations to draw in business, are crunching transaction data to offer cash back and free service upgrades, among other benefits. The intent is to draw in repeat business from customers who transact in their stores but could also very well have bank accounts.
Check cashing transactions historically have been one-off events, at least as far as the stores could tell unless a customer visited regularly, said Steve Kietz, president of Inte Q LLC. That's changing as alternative financial service providers are becoming more sophisticated with the ways they mine customer data to improve the shopping experience at a time when regulators continue to scrutinize their businesses.
"Now, they are creating rewards and tracking programs," said Kietz, whose company helps develop customer relationship management and loyalty programs for retailers and other industries.
A recent online survey conducted by Inte Q found that the majority of those who use alternative financial services view rewards as an important factor in selecting a provider. The survey, which polled 1,000 people online, also found that more than half of respondents who use services like check-cashing said they are likely to use more than one provider.
Sensing an opportunity, Inte Q is expanding its business to include a new market: alternative financial service providers. And just like in banking, Kietz said sending more relevant rewards and providing special services to the best customers are emerging trends coming to check-cashing stores.
There's already work underway.
Community Financial Service Centers, a national check-cashing company that also sells services like bill pay and money orders, is enhancing a loyalty program. The Illinois company is preparing to update the program so customers can earn cash back when they swipe a plastic loyalty card. The amount they earn back depends on the state they are shopping in as the fees for services vary by region.
Benjamin Snare, marketing director atCommunity Financial Service Centers, said the company wants to show customers the firm appreciates their business, while at the same time, help incentivize them to drive a mile more to come do business in its store rather than a competitor's that could be slightly closer.
KeyBank, which offers check-cashing services, lets people cash their fifth check for free when they are government or payroll checks.
Others are finding coupons work best for marketing to the underserved audience.
Pay-O-Matic, a check-cashing company that operates stores in New York, has been taking the coupon approach after finding its customers who often have bank accounts respond best to instant gratification.
"Our customer base likes to pay for what they get and get rewarded immediately," said Robin Miles, chief executive officer of Pay-O-Matic.
Among the ways Pay-O-Matic delivers coupons are: SMS messages, printed receipts, and most recently, promos running on TVs inside the stores that promote a code a person can text to get a coupon to be used at checkout. The discounts will vary but could include, say, a free upgrade for an expedited bill payment. The firm, which has strengthened is customer analytics by centralizing its customer data more than a year ago, also cross-sells rewards between its various financial services products and which consumer gets what reward will depend on his transaction data. The method for what delivery works better, however, is clear: SMS texts.
"What texting gives you is an ability to communicate with a more transient type of customer," Miles said. "It's a great tool."
This points to how there are nuances to rewarding an audience who may have more fleeting needs than traditional bank customers.
Brian Riley, a research director at CEB TowerGroup, said building a reward programs requires fresh thinking for an audience that's not prime. Even prepaid cards, excepting those tied to payroll, have shelf lives of months, whereas credit or debit customers tend to have years-long relationships, he said.
Looking ahead, mobile apps and other technologies that help consumers build up financial cushions are seen as crucial ingredients of cultivating loyalty for people who live paycheck to paycheck.
Last year, the Center for Financial Services Innovation published a white paper that spelled out another loyalty opportunity: integrate check-cashing with other services such as savings accounts that don't require minimum deposits. This week, CFSI drew attention to the inherent tension between payday hitting and bill due dates with a new research paper on financial health. The firm believes banks could use tech to help customers tackle the misalignment and in turn, the need to rely on what could be costly nonbank products for liquidity issues.
But regardless of the provider, some believe mobile apps will become the biggest coup for drawing repeat business especially for the underbanked, a group known for owning smartphones to connect to the internet instead of desktops.
"The biggest reward that any [company] can give consumers is a great mobile user interface," said Richard Crone, chief executive of Crone Consulting.
Inte Q's Kietz, a veteran of Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, also expects mobile apps to become increasingly important to alternative financial service firms' marketing mix. To date, their apps typically provide more basic information like location-finders rather than transaction features. But he expects the apps to become more sophisticated over the next two years.
But regardless, Kietz views mobile apps as complementary to services sold within stores. Customers could, after all, have a strong rapport with employees they trust and a desire for an in-person confirmation that the bill is paid.