The Slow Rise of the Tablet App for Retirement Plans

They’re scarce now, but the rise of the account-specific tablet applications (apps) for retirement plans will come, says Corporate Insight.

Apps that are created for use on tablets offer the potential for greater functionality than a typical mobile app, Corporate Insight says in its recent report “Retirement on the Move: Tablet Edition,” an overview of retirement plan tablet apps. In the defined contribution (DC) world, users could view account balances and analyze fund data or asset allocations on the move, and the larger screens of tablets would make certain tools easier to use and multimedia resources more accessible.

Yet only three out of the 17 plan providers Corporate Insight follows—Fidelity, Vanguard, VALIC—offer an account-specific app, according to the report.

“The retirement industry as a whole seems to be lagging the banking and brokerage industry in the mobile space,” says Andrew Way, senior analyst of the Retirement Plan Monitor at Corporate Insight in New York, noting that the gap is unsurprising.

The demand is simply not as high as it is for retail and other financial accounts, Way tells PLANSPONSOR, noting, that in retirement, people are more invested in longer-term investment vehicles, and don’t log into their accounts as often. And, unlike a checking account, which might see weekly or daily activity, there is usually much less to do on the website for an individual’s retirement account.

But the demand does exist, and it’s growing, according to Way, who says Corporate Insight anticipates more firms will offer these applications. In February 2013, when the firm last conducted similar research there were just two apps, which have both been redesigned, and joined by a third tablet app from VALIC.

Vanguard is the only provider that offers an app for use on devices other than an iPad—the firm’s app can be downloaded on Android and Kindle Fire devices—while Fidelity’s NetBenefits app can be used on an Android tablet, the report notes, it is not optimized for tablet use.

In general, about one-third of users log in to view educational content on these sites, according to Way, which can include videos, podcasts and short articles.

At the moment, and with such a small sampling size, there’s little consistency among the apps or the features. For example, T. Rowe Price offers a retirement-focused educational app with content articles and a calendar of compliance dates. Way says this app addresses plan sponsors as well as plan participants, with content for the two separate audiences. “That calendar definitely is more geared for plan sponsors,” he says, while content such as videos with life event themes and educational content is intended for plan participants. 

Firms are offering convenience when they offer an app, Way says, which ties in to how people like to access information. More and more, people are likely to turn to a smartphone or tablet—something more portable than a home computer—for speedy access or to get quick information.

“A mobile app is not a be-all, end-all,” he points out. “Obviously, the funds a provider gives access to is more important. But [apps are] a big convenience. Providers are actually seeing more unique logins on mobile than on desktop computers.”

Way observes that the tablet market has plateaued to some extent, but usage rates still trend toward phone and tablet use rather than desktop, so the technology is a welcome added convenience and providers are likely to continue seeing how it can fit into their offerings. For example, he explains, “When participants are on home tablets, they’re browsing through news and may see a news story about a mutual fund they’re invested in. You might jump onto the Vanguard mobile app and change allocations to get out of the fund.” Because the process is far less cumbersome than going to a computer and logging in, it speaks to people’s natural tendency to browse on a device.

Tablet and phone apps have great potential to engage plan participants, Way says, and providers will likely look to offer more in the way of performance charts, educational videos and retirement-themed games. Plan advisers will most likely find these account-specific apps useful for tools to engage participants, since retirement projection tools can easily demonstrate shortfalls and give recommendations. Fidelity’s tablet app has a “How Do I Compare Tool,” which, makes use of social comparisons in retirement savings. Participants can compare their current balance, contribution rate and rate of return with those of people their age across four different geographic segments, by ZIP code, state, region and country.

The function of a particularly useful app as a good differentiator if a plan sponsor is choosing between two providers, Way feels. “You like the funds and the reps of both firms, but Vanguard’s tablet app could be the tiebreaker,” he says. Another is the transactional capabilities Way thinks more providers will offer. “People should be able to change up allocations, rebalance,” he observes. Perhaps they won’t perform these tasks constantly, but the convenience is a selling point, and could also be used as an easy way for participants to increase their deferral rate.

Way also sees tablet apps as a retention tool when participants switch jobs. “You want to retain the assets you have when your customers move on to a different job,” he says. “Firms need to do as much as possible to make customers want to keep the assets at the company.”

A summary of the report, as well as information about how to purchase the full results, is available here.