For customers at some community banks, using debit cards can pay off.
Rockland Trust Co. in Massachusetts and Sun National Bank in Vineland, N.J., are among those offering cash incentives to get customers to use their cards more.
But unlike some similar promotions at other banks, these are not temporary. The two very different programs are designed to pay off for the banks too and help set them apart from the competition.
Rockland Trust pays 10 cents per debit card transaction-up to $300 per year-when customers sign up for Free Eco Checking with electronic monthly statements.
"We wanted to figure out a way to have a program that would reward consumers but would also be economical for the bank," says Jane Lundquist, executive vice president of retail banking at Rockland Trust.
Going paperless helps offset the expense of the program. A typical statement costs 51 cents to 78 cents to produce, and another 38 cents to 40 cents to mail, says Michael Croal, senior director at Cornerstone Advisors, Inc., a consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Rockland Trust also saves money by not paying interest on the checking accounts, says Lundquist.
Sun National bundles mobile banking with other benefits for a $5 monthly fee. Customers can chip away at that fee every time they use a debit card, because Sun National pays 15 cents per transaction, up to $10 a month. So obsessive swipers can actually turn a profit.
When the offering, called Sun on Hand, launched in January, the bank hoped customers who signed up would use a debit card 52 percent more often than those in the bank's free checking account.
But the actual difference is 264 percent, says Malandro.
Just 315 people have Sun on Hand so far. But the bank plans to crank up the marketing once it has more historical data to fine-tune the pricing and features.
Lundquist says Rockland Trust has opened several thousand Free Eco Checking accounts since the spring of 2009 and is happy with the profitability.
Her bank considered different ways to promote the accounts, including offering higher interest rates based on debit card use. That approach was ruled out because customers who have the accounts tend to fall short of the number of transactions that would be needed to raise their rates, says Lundquist. "We didn't want a program where the economics were dependent on people failing," she says. "We wanted to reward customers for what they do."
Rewards programs for debit cards are more common among large banks. But Malandro says Sun on Hand shows that community banks like his can compete, even for technologically savvy younger customers. "We wanted to say, 'Hey, we can play with the big boys too,'" he says.