U.S. retail banking continues to feel pressure from a chastened consumer base, unexpected competitors and aggressive regulation. Identifying who banks' most profitable customers are, now and in the future, points the way past the crisis.

The best growth strategy is to deepen ties with consumers who are looking to the bank to help them better manage their finances. MasterCard consumer research reveals that women are a natural starting point for such relationship banking efforts. The reasons are threefold. First, according to Prudential's Financial Experience & Behaviors Among Women study, 95 percent of women act as financial decision makers in the household. Second, women indicate greater confidence than men that their primary banks understand their financial needs and offer an appropriate set of products—60 percent compared with 54 percent, according to data from TNS. And third, TNS reports that women are more likely than men to express a preference for having most or all of their accounts at one bank—80 percent compared with 69 percent.

Connecting the dots, banks are in an enviable position: the customers who exercise the greatest control over household financial management are also those who prefer to consolidate their relationships and are confident in their primary bank's ability to meet their needs. By examining share-of-wallet drivers, banks can see the specific qualities they must develop to improve their attractiveness to women customers. TNS data suggests that far more than men, women regard price as tablestakes. They value relationship and service over price. The bad news is, of course, that what this key segment wants is not necessarily what banks are good at delivering.

For retail banks to strengthen their position, they must develop compelling offers to convince women to consolidate relationships. Looking across the products women own, the best place to focus consolidation efforts is the credit card. Fully 57 percent of women own a credit card at a bank other than their primary bank, according to a December 2010 study commissioned by MasterCard. What explains the data? In large part, rewards: 27 percent of credit cards opened outside the primary bank can be attributed to the attractiveness of the rewards program.

Knowing that women are looking for rewards that demonstrate their value to the bank provides an opportunity for issuers to encourage consolidation and recapture share lost to competitors. Cards are a good starting point; additional products such as certificates of deposit or installment loans can follow. In the meantime, banks can invest in systems that proactively recommend ways to improve consumers'finances, and highlight this capability as one of the long-term benefits of broadening relationships with the primary bank.

The importance of women is put into high relief when the focus narrows to mothers as a subset of the larger female population. In 2008, mothers represented 82 percent of women in the United States, according to Pew Research data. Besides acting as a robust proxy for the larger female super-segment, mothers, single or otherwise, are an extremely important demographic, given their oversight of household finances, their resulting desire for financial control, and their commitment to fiscal responsibility in a challenging economic environment.

When asked about their major financial needs, mothers routinely cite financial education, budgeting and tracking tools to help organize their lives. If banks can link budgeting and expense management tools to the primary checking account—for example, with web-based tools that help women better structure household cash flow – they will provide exactly what this segment wants: flexibility, clarity, and control in household money management.

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