Coming: Staples will do a ‘hard launch' of The Bite Club in May.

Staples sinks its teeth into 401(k) education

Popular vampire theme used to boost savings

Capitalizing on the pop culture phenomenon of vampires, Staples Inc. is using a web-based vampire-themed financial education game — the Bite Club — to encourage participants to improve their retirement savings.

Over the years, the Framingham, Mass.-based company has taken several steps to increase participation and deferral rates in its $1 billion 401(k) plan, including a corporate match, auto enrollment and auto escalation, as well as numerous financial education campaigns.

Staples chose the Bite Club game in an effort to appeal to hourly retail employees as well as new employees — both salaried and hourly — who postponed enrollment in the 401(k), thus sacrificing “free money” from the corporate match.

“The biggest challenge is that we're so large, with associates in 49 states,” said Lisa Blasdale, senior benefits manager.

Although Staples can hold financial education meetings with 500 employees at a time at its distribution centers, it also must find ways to communicate with those who work at different hours in different business units, she said.

Staples has used games, such as crossword puzzles, in previous financial education campaigns. “We would print them and put them in a break room for employees” at Staples stores, Ms. Blasdale said. “Our goal was (employees') awareness of benefits.”

The employees' response to the paper games played a role in encouraging Staples management to pursue the web-based Bite Club game. Employees “learn in different ways,” Ms. Blasdale said. “We want to communicate in different ways.”

The Bite Club game was developed by the non-profit Doorways To Dreams Fund, Allston, Mass. The organization has focused on creating financial education games to help low- and moderate-income consumers better manage their finances, said Executive Director Timothy Flacke. Staples is the first company to use one of the organization's games for employees in a retirement plan, he said.

“The goal of the game is employee engagement,” said Rachel Rice, managing director of strategic marketing for New York Life Retirement Plan Services, Westwood, Mass., service provider for Staples. The Bite Club is New York Life's first venture in web-based financial games.

Staples has employed the Bite Club game systematically, starting with a one-month pilot project in two geographic regions in September 2011. Staples then moved to a “soft launch” for all U.S. retail employees during Halloween weekend, offering the Bite Club without conducting an internal promotion.

A “hard launch,” in which the game will be heavily promoted, is scheduled for May, Ms. Blasdale said.

Staples is offering the game at a time when its 401(k) plan has an average deferral rate of 6%. “We want to get that higher,” Ms. Blasdale said. The participation rate is 64%.

Staples also has tried to build interest in its 401(k) plan with a corporate match of 50 cents for each dollar contributed by an employee up to 6% of an employee's salary.

The plan offers auto enrollment, but only to existing employees with five years of service, Ms. Blasdale said. The auto-enrollment default rate is 3%. The plan also offers automatic escalation at the rate of one percentage point per year up to 6% of an employee's pay.

Customized

The Bite Club game was customized for Staples employees to include information about the Staples plan and information from New York Life. It is designed to teach players how to balance running a business, paying off debt and saving for retirement.

The game is played in 15 rounds with each round representing a three-year period. So players, in effect, are managing their money from their early 20s to retirement age. (The game is available online to anyone.)

The first part of each round features the running of a business — a club for vampires — in which players cater to visitors by offering them drinks (various types of blood) at the bar and providing music and dancing entertainment.

Players must make choices on whether certain expenses — adding tables, hiring a bouncer, etc. — will increase attendance and revenue or just represent an extra cost.

When the first part of the round concludes, players use their club “earnings” for the second part of the round. There, they must decide how much will be used to pay off credit card debt and student loan debt, to save for retirement, or to improve the club's facilities.

After players make their choices, the game provides commentary on their strategy and offers suggestions. Then, the players proceed to the next round, as they seek to increase their income from managing the club while adding to their savings and continuing to reduce debts.

The Staples Bite Club game won first place for New York Life Retirement Plan Services in Pensions & Investments' 2012 Eddy Awards, in the special projects category for providers with corporate client-sponsors of more than 5,000 employees. This award was one of five awards for New York Life in the service provider group.

Ms. Rice of New York Life said her firm is discussing options to add more financial decision-making to the Bite Club game, such as allowing players to take out loans from their 401(k) accounts and measure the impact on long-term savings.

“The fascination with vampires has made this very timely,” said Ms. Blasdale, adding there's one limit to the game: Employees can play only at break time or on their own time.