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State Farm Tries The Chat And Coffee Biz

State Farm opens a coffee shop in Chicago.I’m walking down the street one day and spot a new coffee shop called “Next Door, State Farm.”

Yes, that’s State Farm as in the big insurance company and online bank.

Could this be another financial company’s effort to rethink the traditional branch bank or insurance office, much like the ING Cafe?

Why, yes it could.

State Farm calls its Chicago foray into chat-and-caffeine “a community space where anyone could ask questions about finances and insurance and get some answers.”

Next Door offers free financial coaching, free classes on personal finance and free high-tech conference rooms, as well as a locally run café with better-than-average coffee.

Seem a little too neighborly to you?

Me, too.

But I checked it out, and it’s for real.

Actually, it’s more than a little bit genius.

In exchange for doling out free advice in a “no-sell” environment, State Farm is gaining invaluable knowledge from the people it helps.

Namely, the often tough to figure out 20- and 30-something markets.

Next Door is situated among prime retailers, bars and restaurants on Diversey Parkway, which divides Chicago’s north-side Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, both favorite haunts of those two demographics.

You just can’t pay for that kind of honest information.

And State Farm is extremely honest about its motives, on the Next Door website (www.nextdoorchi.com), in its brochure and in person.

I spoke with manager Brett Myers, who told me that the overall goal is to help State Farm create better products.

He gave me a tour of the open, loft-like space after a brief chat on big, comfy orange couches by the front door.

He pointed out the hard-to-miss wall calendar, a huge chalkboard featuring scheduled yoga classes, open mic nights and fun runs along with more serious financial talks, like “Too Poor to Score,” presented by Next Door specialty grocer neighbor Trader Joe’s on how to save money by cooking for dates at home.

Fun.

The tables next in the café area were packed with work-at-homers and students taking advantage of the free wireless Internet.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch – or cup of joe, for that matter.

The coffee, espresso drinks and tea run typical Chicago prices. We’re talking $4.50 for a 16-ounce latte, and $3 for the same size coffee. Pie, cupcakes and cookies are all in the $2 to $3 range, and a sandwich will put you back up to $6.

Seating is also available in “pods,” small curtained rooms on wheels for those who seek a little privacy while they work.

Brett also showed me the iPad app that Next Door’s four casually dressed “coaches” use during one-on-one “coaching sessions.”

The specially designed app is built around saving for key life events, such as retirement, starting a family, buying a home or a car, or living with a partner.

A series of questions gathers pertinent information, so coaches can show how baby steps will add up to big changes or savings over time. It’s kind of like a real-life version of that Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books.

Coaches also determine a plan of next steps, which is saved online. “It’s more peer-to-peer than teacher-to-student,” Brett noted.

And Brett promised that coaches, who aren’t salespeople, don’t refer clients to State Farm agents or products, unless they’re directly asked.

More questions down the line equals additional coaching sessions, which coaches encourage a week or so later, and then whenever life changes alter the current plan.

For free, of course.

See? Pure genius.

And, as far as I’m concerned, everybody wins.

For those of you who live in my neighborhood and want to check it out, Next Door is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily at 659 W. Diversey Parkway.

Here are some more photos of what it looks like inside:

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