Cartoon Characters Animate Check Sales

PERSONAL finances are serious business. But check printers are banking on the fact that adding a little levity to the day-to-day activity of writing and cashing checks may make the task less arduous and boost sales at the same time.

The Deluxe Corporation in St. Paul, Minn., the largest supplier of checks in the United States, recently developed a new line of checks featuring cartoon or comic strip characters such as Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, and Garfield.

"The prime buyers [of checks] are baby boomers, and these are the characters they grew up with," says Bruce Mears, a Deluxe spokesman. "Now that they're having kids of their own they're rediscovering cartoons and comics. Life has gotten complicated and [these characters] return them to a simpler time."

When Bugs Bunny celebrated his 50th birthday recently, Deluxe jumped on the publicity bandwagon. The company compiled a list of characters who still command a following even though they have not been on TV or in the comic strips for years.

"The checks are doing a bigger business than we projected," Mr. Mears says. Not everyone is looking for frivolity from their checking accounts: Sales of standard-issue blue checks and checks with bank logos have remained stable. But since April, Deluxe has received 400,000 orders (200 checks per average order) for the new "designer" checks, Mears says.

Still, the personal check industry is questioning whether the popularity of a mischievous cat and a Stone Age family can make up for the fact that checks face increasing competition from faster and more sophisticated methods of payments such as credit cards and ATM/debit cards.

Although check sales have remained relatively flat over the past few years, growth in the debit card market has been even slower, says Linden Fellerman, president of Equifax Check Services, a Tampa, Fla., check-authorization firm.

"Debit cards are used primarily in low-ticket, high-volume transactions at convenience stores and grocery stores," he says. "Meanwhile, at retail stores the percentage of people using credit cards has remained the same."

Amid speculation that check use began to decline with the advent of ATM/debit cards, the Financial Stationers Association in Washington recently conducted a survey of 1,000 adult check users. Approximately 80 percent of the respondents said personal checks provided them with the greatest sense of control over their spending habits. About 75 percent said checks gave them the best information for tax record keeping.

"People still want the confirmation that a check can provide for monitoring their own budgets," says Susan Finn, executive director of the Financial Stationers Association. "Checks also provide greater control over [financial] transactions."

The Federal Reserve Board estimates that 58 billion personal and business checks were paid in the US in 1992. The average household writes 23 to 25 checks each month, according to the Financial Stationers Association.

But an unsteady financial climate has meant that consumers are buying less and therefore writing fewer checks. In addition, most households already have one checking account and need an incentive to open up another one or buy new checks.

Current Inc., a catalog supplier of paper products in Colorado Springs, Colo., hopes its special-edition Elvis Presley checks, as well as its new "Cathy" checks, based on the popular comic strip character, will provide such an incentive. The company, which sells checks directly to the customer for about half the price of those sold in banks, was looking for something unique that was not available elsewhere. Elvis and Cathy have become company best-sellers, says Ron Eilers, vice president and general mana ger.

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