Wilmington Trust Co. hopes to add some bells and whistles to its retirement plans - including a debit card, investment advice, and wider access to individually directed accounts.

The last of these would come first. The Delaware company, which manages about $12 billion for roughly 1,000 retirement plans, now offers individually directed accounts to fewer than a dozen of its plans, but is working with record keepers to provide the option to most customers, said Virginia Karablacas, manager of its employee benefits group.

Wilmington offers individually directed accounts through an alliance with Wilmington Brokerage Services. (Both are units of Wilmington Trust Corp.) Plans of any size can participate if the record-keeping company that services the plan allows the service.

Next up would be a debit card that would let participants borrow money from their accounts. Wilmington expects to offer such a card next year, and has been discussing the details with one of the record-keeping companies it works with and one of its plan sponsor firms, Ms. Karablacas said. Wilmington itself would not issue the card.

The debit card would facilitate retirement plan loans, since Wilmington would not have to cut a check, Ms. Karablacas said. Retirement plan loans allow participants to borrow from their plans without incurring withdrawal penalties. Participants must repay the loans, with interest, within a specified time.

Investment advice is a bit farther down the road, and will most likely be made available through Web-based services such as Financial Engines Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., or mPower.com Inc. in San Francisco, Ms. Karablacas said.

Industry observers say a broad range of services can help plan providers stand out in a volatile stock market.

"Firms are trying to differentiate themselves in the marketplace through features, because you can't talk about investment performance now," said Joshua Dietch, a consultant at Cerulli Associates Inc. in Boston. "When you can't talk about investment performance, you've got to find something to talk about."

But though fancy account features appeal to a vocal minority of plan participants, who in turn prompt sponsors to look for those features when choosing providers, the features are not widely used.

According to Spectrem Group in New York, only 16% of 401(k) participants have some type of advisory service available to them through their plan. Of those participants with access to the service, only about 40% have used it, Spectrem said.

And self-directed plans currently hold only 4% to 5% of 401(k) assets, according to research by Cerulli. In fact, only 2% to 4% of the individuals whose plans are with Wilmington Trust and have access to self-directed accounts actually use them, Ms. Karablacas said.

Still, the stock market's recent woes have not hurt contributions to retirement plans, Ms. Karablacas said. The number of retirement plans at Wilmington has grown by over 20% a year for the past five years, and Ms. Karablacas said she expects that growth to continue.

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