Battle for young customers heats up in HSBC's Asia stronghold

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[December 19, 2015]    By Lawrence White and Daria Hsu
 HONG KONG (Reuters) - Banks in Hong Kong are intensifying the battle for young customers key to their future retail profit, offering online perks and mobile banking products in a bid to erode the dominance of HSBC <HSBA.L> in its Asian stronghold.

Like peers around the world, banks operating in Hong Kong including Bank of China Ltd <601988.SS> <3988.HK> and Citigroup Inc <C.N> are trying to improve their online banking products to lure tech-savvy students and young professionals as they are about to open their first bank account.

For HSBC the battle to win the hearts of young Hong Kongers is particularly important as retail banking activity in the Asian financial center helped drive its overall profit up 2 percent in the first half of this year.

The London-based bank, which has put China at the center of its global strategy, is also in the process of deciding whether to move its global headquarters to Hong Kong. <0005.HK>

A survey of 2,500 people conducted in November by specialized research firm RFI, gave Bank of China a bigger market share among bank customers aged 18-24 than HSBC, which dominates in all other categories.

These customers loathe spending time at bank branches and seek a lender that can allow them to carry out multiple transactions from their smartphone.

"I would rate both the online and mobile services offered by Bank of China as good as they allow me to pay my parking tickets instantly, and this is very important to me," said Chun Hoi Lau, a 23-year-old student at the University of Hong Kong.

Bank of China, which says the young generation is a key customer segment, allows clients to carry out cross-border payments through an app, uses the popular WeChat social media platform to handle customers' queries and has introduced a popular virtual securities investment contest for students.

"We have been developing a comprehensive strategy with a set of products and services delivered through their preferred channels to suit their life styles," the bank told Reuters.


The jury however is still out on which lender is making effective inroads among the young, a segment targeted because people often stick with a bank for life once they have made their choice, analysts said.

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In a detailed survey commissioned by HSBC, and conducted by Nielsen last year, the bank said its market share of 18-24 year olds was nearly double that of Bank of China. It said it was aware of the increasing need to offer more online services.

"We are investing heavily in developing new capabilities to meet customers' needs," said Kevin Martin, HSBC's head of retail banking and wealth management, Asia Pacific.

HSBC will next year launch more products for smartphones and digital payments as well as new security features, Martin added.

Citibank is also appealing to younger customers with 19 "smart" branches in Hong Kong that boast the sleek lines of Apple Inc's retail stores, touch panels, video conferencing facilities and iPads to access a wide range of banking services.

Hong Kong spokesman James Griffiths said Citibank was also offering customers discounted fees on stock and forex trading via digital platforms to encourage more transactions.

The question now for HSBC's challengers is whether they can convert young people lured by attractive rates or flashy online offerings into lifelong customers.

"HSBC isn't that popular among young people," said John Pang, a 24-year-old civil servant who banks with the lender. "It hasn't changed a lot in the past 5-10 years, the online interface still looks the same."

(Editing by Lisa Jucca and Miral Fahmy)

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