Despite a plan to open what would be its second walk-in office in a couple of months, E-Trade Group insists it is not looking to establish a brick-and-mortar presence.
"We don't see a branch type of offering in our future," said Patrick DiChiro, an E-Trade spokesman. "We don't think it fits in with where the business is going today."
Rather, E-Trade is trying to pass on to the consumer the cost-efficiency and convenience of doing business on-line, Mr. DiChiro said.
"Today's customer is looking for 24-7 convenience," he said. And for those who want a high-touch approach, E-Trade has an extensive customer service team that answers phone queries, Mr. DiChiro said, and it is mulling a physical presence of sorts, perhaps through strategically placed kiosks.
The new office on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan is to open for business shortly, and customers will be able to open accounts on the premises, said a woman who answered the phone there this week.
For E-Trade, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based electronic brokerage that had $44 billion of customer assets at Dec. 31, the Manhattan presence is more about building a brand name than a fledgling branch network. Brand identity is clearly very important to E-Trade, where employees, including executives, greet callers on their voice mail with their names and a standard pitch for the company.
The company says it is not looking to mimic competitors such as Charles Schwab & Co. or TD Waterhouse Group, the brokerage business mostly owned by Toronto-Dominion Bank of Canada, which have pursued a successful hybrid approach to asset gathering, reaching customers through a combination of bricks and clicks.
In shying from building a branch network, E-Trade is taking a course sharply different from what established Schwab as a force in the industry and that continues to provide the bulk of its new business.
About 70% of Schwab's new accounts and 50% of its new assets come in through the San Francisco-based company's 341 branches, said Glen Mathison, a company spokesman. Still, an overwhelming 70% of trades are done on-line, he said.
Schwab, which held customer assets of $718.1 billion at the end of January, began its branch network in 1975 with just one office. By 1988 it had 100 offices; most of its expansion has happened in the last decade, Mr. Mathison said.
"People like to talk to someone in person when examining their portfolios," he said. The offices are a "beachhead for business development."
At New York-based TD Waterhouse, about 50% of new accounts come in through the company's 165 U.S. offices, said Frank J. Petrilli, president and chief operating officer.
And though about 80% of the trades transacted through TD Waterhouse in the United States are done on-line, the company will continue to open branch offices, Mr. Petrilli said.
"Our strategy is to be within 25 miles of 80% of the investing public in North America," he said. The company needs to open about 20 more branches to get there, he said, echoing Schwab's desire to get in front of the customer at crucial moments, such as when an investor reorganizes his or her portfolio.
"We believe our strategy of bricks and clicks is the winning one," Mr. Petrilli said.
The company's fiscal first-quarter results, reported Wednesday, seemed to underscore his claim.
TD Waterhouse reported net earnings of $57 million for the quarter ended Jan. 31, a hefty increase of 184% from the year before and a 172% increase from the preceding quarter. Revenues were up 77% year-over-year, at $382 million, and customer assets worldwide stand at $150 billion, the company reported.
E-Trade is going to have to overcome its aversion to creating a physical presence if it wants to compete with "the big boys," said Jaime Punishill, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm.
"E-Trade has the aspiration to be a giant financial institution," Mr. Punishill said. But to get there, it must develop a bricks-and-clicks approach, he said. "People are multichannel users," he added.