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Sandy Blair, CalSTRS

Web redesign eases the task of shopping for 403(b) offerings

Sandy Blair sees the redesign as taking the mystery out of the complex 403(b) marketplace.

Sandy Blair of the California State Teachers' Retirement System, West Sacramento, won an Innovation Award for making a new idea even better.

Since 2012, CalSTRS has offered a clearinghouse of 403(b) plan information through a website called 403bCompare (www.403bcompare.com), enabling sponsors and participants to examine the options offered by many competing vendors. The website is for non-ERISA 403(b) plans at public schools, community colleges, charter schools and county education departments.

In its application for an Innovation Award, CalSTRS officials conceded that the original idea "never realized its potential" because the 403bCompare website was difficult to use. It quoted one user as saying the website "looked like someone had saved a website from the late 1990s in Tupperware, microwaved it and asked you to consume it."

Ms. Blair, director of retirement readiness, said executives of the $213.7 billion system engineered a major makeover by updating technology, adding retirement education information and correcting factual errors as well as "making a big change in the look and feel" of the website.

Innovation Award judges praised CalSTRS' efforts. "This was a good job in revamping this," wrote one judge. "It must have been a daunting task."

Ms. Blair said the new-look website is the product of CalSTRS conducting usability studies and being willing to make the education and technical changes internally. "We did a cost analysis and found that doing this in-house was cost effective," she said.

"This technology project helps make an almost impossible number of 403(b) sortable and therefore useful to participant," one judge wrote.

"The complete compendium of investment options is a great way to help participants comparison shop across all of the investment options," wrote another judge.

Ms. Blair said the website's new look enforces the 403bCompare goal of "demystifying" the complex 403(b) marketplace in California, a goal that includes CalSTRS vetting information from providers before they can be listed on the website. There are 58 vendors providing 169 products with more than 5,000 investment options for 403(b) plans in California.

The 403bCompare program provides information — not advice. It provides details on fees, average expense ratios and surrender periods for annuities. By consulting the website, participants will know if a sales representative earns a commission.

One 403bCompare goal is to reduce the cost of retirement investing. "Low-cost 403(b) products are typically mutual fund products and not annuities," said the CalSTRS Innovation Award application. "Currently, 70% of the active 403(b) products registered on the site are annuities."