Green Dot Checking App Aims to Shake Up Market

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After months of internal testing, GreenDot (GDOT) is rolling out a beta version of its mobile consumer checking account, the aptly named GoBank.

The launch of the iPhone and Android app is the culmination of several acquisitions, including the purchase of Bonneville Bancorp in Provo, Utah (now Green Dot Bank) and geolocation company Loopt.

The test puts the prepaid card company in the same league as Simple (formerly BankSimple), which is itself in beta; Movenbank, which plans to launch in late February; and American Express, which is marketing its Bluebird fee-less, prepaid account with Walmart.

What sets GreenDot apart, asserts chief executive Steve Streit, is the company isn't relying on a third party to hold its customers' deposits.

"We are a bank, and this is a bank-issued checking account. It is a real, FDIC-insured bank account," he says, alluding to Bluebird, which is not backed by the independent federal agency, and Simple, which keeps its customers' deposits with The Bancorp Bank. "That's different."

As of Tuesday morning, people were able to sign up for the beta launch at "The whole team is set up to hit 'clear, clear, clear,' says GoBank spokesman Quinn Daly. Green Dot will be accepting "a few thousand" initial users, says Streit.

After being accepted into the program, beta testers will be given a confirmation and be able to download the app at the Apple or Google app store.

GoBank customers will be given access to two buckets of money — a Money Vault, a type of savings account where users can sock away cash in an effort to save, and a regular checking account.

In addition to Green Dot's ATM network and mobile check deposit, people will also be able to send cash to others via text message or even through Facebook. Those receiving cash will be able to either open their own GoBank accounts or get the money through PayPal, says Streit.

There is also a savings tool, "Ask the Fortune Teller," that after being set up will advise users on potential purchases. At first blush, the utility of that tool seems similar to Simple's Safe-to-Spend feature.

Users will be able to decide if they want to pay Green Dot a monthly fee, anything from nothing to $9 a month.

"Everyone gets mad when a bank forces you to pay this, or pay that, but by making a fee voluntary, it's a sense that [a customer] can punish 'my bank,'" says Streit.

Still, Green Dot is creating new competitors for itself, says Brian Riley, a senior research director of retail banking and cards at CEB Towergroup.

"They lost their first-mover advantage on this in a lot of ways," he says. "But now they are in the hunt with those big dogs... they kind of went from the world of retail and prepaid cards to competing in retail banking, which are two very different animals. They now have to be benchmarked not against NetSpend, but against Chase and American Express."

It's been no secret that the Pasadena, Calif., company's earnings have floundered amidst lost shelf space at Walmart and other retailers.

In its third quarter, Green Dot's profit fell to $10.6 million, down from $13.3 million from a year earlier. Earnings per share also fell to 24 cents, a 20% drop from the same period in 2011.

"It's not just the lost shelf space, though," says Aite Group senior analyst Madeline K. Aufseeser. "It's the average tenure of the card in the wallet, and how many dollars are getting loaded on those cards… Their average direct deposit ratio is far less than" their competitors.

Green Dot still has a chance to bounce back, she says.

"The market is growing exponentially, Green Dot has just as much opportunity to grow as any other," Aufseeser added.

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