Older customers are being courted by community banks with perks like free tax and investment seminars, no-fee checking, social events, guided tours - and even free movies. The goal: to wean the seniors away from just savings accounts and into more-ambitious investment products and other bank offerings.
The programs, though, are no quick fix. They require intensive hands-on involvement and a lot of patience. But the banks that offer them are convinced they will yield long-term results in the form of increased investment business, either from the seniors themselves or their children and grandchildren.
A sampling of the programs:
A Florida bank has started a travel and social club for people over 50.
A New Jersey bank offers seminars, free checking, premium savings rates, and free notary services.
A Pennsylvania bank offers free travelers checks in addition to free checking and bonus savings rates.
The strategy in each case is similar: to make seniors more comfortable, through soft sell, with their bank and with the investment process.
Seniors, typically conservative, are often wary of products not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks need to take extra steps to reassure seniors that they will not lose their life savings when buying annuities and mutual funds.
Investing can be "emotionally threatening whereas savings can be emotionally rewarding," said Michael P. Sullivan, a principal at 50-Plus Communications Consulting, Charlotte, N.C., which works with financial institutions that sell investments and insurance to older customers.
Some banks set up booths where investment representatives or mutual fund wholesalers answer investment questions and provide handouts. Others conduct seminars on investment issues.
Still others are trying to heighten investment awareness by developing a deeper relationship with seniors on the deposit side. Such programs typically offer high-interest accounts and other perks such as free checking. Social components are often included.
To be sure, banks do not expect investment sales to skyrocket through their efforts. But they do hope to gain some investment business from seniors and their families.
"Older customers are good for your business and you want to get them and keep them," Mr. Sullivan said. "They also refer a lot of people to you."
One bank already reporting some payback from its program is Charlotte State Bank, Port Charlotte, Fla. In January, the bank started a "hometown advantage" club, a social and travel group for people 50 and older.
The bank is seeking to increase deposits and stimulate sales of investment products, said Charles G. Brown 3d, president of the $50 million-asset bank. He estimated that about 30% of the bank's brokerage business was attributable to the club.
Charlotte State Financial Services Inc. has accrued about $4 million of assets under management since it began offering the services in July through Invest Financial Corp., a third-party marketing company in Tampa.
The bank plans about one trip every two months and offers seminars on a variety of issues, said Mr. Brown. Charlotte State also offers members premium rates on certificates of deposit, free checking, a quarterly newsletter, and a 10% discount at some stores.
"They've gotten more comfortable with the bank in a social setting so they're more likely to use the bank in a professional setting," Mr. Brown said.
Seniors who join the club typically have either $2,500 in any combination of accounts or at least $10,000 in brokerage accounts, but those without banking relationships can join for $3 a month. "We didn't want people to feel pressured to bank with us to remain a part of this club," Mr. Brown said, adding that the bank hoped to eventually gain the business of the noncustomer members.
The club had 465 members as of mid-September, significantly more than Mr. Brown said he expected by yearend.
Sussex County State Bank, Franklin, N.J., is another bank hoping investment sales will pick up as a result of a new program tailored to seniors.
Viewing savings accounts as the cornerstone of its relationship with older customers, the $130 million-asset bank is trying to position itself as the place these customers should go for answers to any financial questions. It is driving this message home with soft-sell tactics like free investment and tax seminars.
While the program does not specifically aim to generate investment business, the bank is confident about its impact on investment sales, said Donald L. Kovach, president and chief executive.
As of early September, the bank had signed up 136 seniors for its "Senior Select" program. For a minimum investment of $10,000, seniors receive a savings account with a 5.13% annual percentage yield and other perks such as free checking, seminars, and notary services.
"This gives the investment division of our bank an opportunity at exposure without spending tons of money on advertising," he said.
Though no one has approached him as a result of opening a Senior Select account, Gary Chiusano, a bank vice president who is also the investment representative, said he believes it is only a matter of time. "It's just going to be a natural evolution - one bank to offer all the services."
First National Bank of Herminie, Irwin, Pa., also has a program specially designed for seniors. The "First Star" club, which began about eight years ago, offers high rates, free travelers checks, and free checking to customers 55 and over who maintain $5,000 in either a money market account, a certificate of deposit, or a savings account.
In addition, the bank sponsors eight movies a year at a local theater, organizes trips, and has a picnic in the summer and a holiday party in the winter.
We're "trying to maintain core deposits and also sell them other products and also give them some real value for keeping money with us," said James R. Lauffer, president, chief executive, and chairman of the bank, which has $240 million of assets.
Though the perks are not directed at improving investment sales, strong loyalty to the bank can lead to other relationships, he said.
For example, he said, mutual funds would not be appropriate for 75-year- olds with only $5,000 cash, but a car loan or fixed annuity might be. The seniors also might refer their children and grandchildren to the bank to buy mutual funds, he said.
Seniors need to understand that there are conservative alternatives that preserve assets and provide a decent return, said Joseph A. Fermano, a financial consultant at Equity National Bank, a subsidiary of Susquehanna Bancshares, a $3.8 billion asset company in Lititz, Pa. Mr. Fermano runs quarterly seminars at senior citizen organizations, as well as seminars at churches. "They know they need to know this stuff, but they don't know what to ask. And they're frightened by that," he said.