Is there a mixed message in having a conference about the underbanked in the middle of a large shopping mall?
Technically, the fourth annual Underbanked Financial Services Forum is taking place inside a Westin hotel that just so happens to be located inside the Galleria Dallas mall. And the conference, we should disclose, is presented by American Banker parent SourceMedia Inc., along with the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a nonprofit affiliate of Chicago's ShoreBank Corp.
But we admit we raised our eyebrows at the prospect of discussing the problems of poor people who lack access to traditional financial services in the midst of a Nordstrom, a Saks Fifth Avenue, a Macy´s and the kind of restaurant that doesn´t list prices on its online menu -- not to mention the ground floor ice skating rink (still in use, despite Monday´s high of 88 degrees).
On the other hand, as some participants at the well-attended conference pointed out, the city -- and even the mall -- is also an ideal location to observe efforts to identify and serve underbanked consumers.
First of all, Dallas is not likely to be mistaken as a "junket" destination in this era of tightened spending and scrutiny of corporate budgets. And the city´s concentration of Hispanics, who make up a large part of the underbanked market, makes it a good place for observing the companies serving such consumers.
We spotted a Check Into Cash Inc. payday loan store on our way to the mall. And once inside, we were surprised to find underbanked products and services -- beyond mall gift cards. The mall directory might list five ATMs, but on a field trip to buy batteries for a dying tape recorder, we found a different sort of financial service provider, at a convenience store across the atrium from the conference location. There, as a sign on the cash register advertises, mall employees can cash checks -- for a 1.5% fee.
Although it´s difficult to compare a percentage to a flat fee, this is one case where traditionally banked consumers might sometimes pay more for less than underbanked consumers do. Last we checked, Bank of America Corp. -- which owns four of the five ATMs in the complex -- charges noncustomers $3 per withdrawal.