Talk about bricks: E-Trade Group Inc. today plans to open a techno-glitzy four-level "flagship superstore" in midtown Manhattan that blurs the line between financial services and entertainment - the first of 20 such complexes the company plans to deploy in big cities worldwide.

At first glance, the 30,000-square-foot store on Madison Avenue at 55th Street (a few blocks from NikeTown, the Disney Store, and the Hard Rock Cafe) is all about brand building and customer service.

But in an interview Wednesday with American Banker, E-Trade chairman and chief executive Christos M. Cotsakos described it as something else. Instead, he called his company's new street presence a catalyst for changing the pedestrian way that retail financial services are delivered.

Coming from Mr. Cotsakos, of course, that's nothing new.

Though the past year or so has seen E-Trade occupied with fairly basic financial services company pursuits like attracting bank deposits and stitching together an automated teller machine network, it has from the beginning been gesturing toward something larger.

According to Mr. Cotsakos, competing financial services companies' branches present themselves in a uniform format. But none has 108 large-scale plasma monitors (including some in the customer rest rooms) that flash real-time stock quotes or play advertisements featuring economist-quiz show host Ben Stein.

Yes, other financial services firms have been experimenting in recent months with Internet cafes that are largely meant to draw a private banking clientele. And many banks' online offerings have something off the beaten track to offer their e-age customers.

But Mr. Cotsakos considers E-Trade's approach to be sui generis. "We've had a lot of our competition come through here and look at it, and they say, 'What's this?' " Mr. Cotsakos said. "Whether it's a bank or a brokerage, they try to provide a service to customers, but they're all tired."

Three years in the making, the glass-and-chrome building houses a silver Lexus IS 300 that was hoisted by crane to the glassed-in second floor. (The car is the prize in an online promotion.

It also features a state-of-the-art television and radio studio - visible to passers-by a la NBC's Today show - that pumps live interviews with corporate executives and others to the Web, radio, and cable. (E-Trade announced its purchase of ClearStation Inc., with its registered virtual financial community of 90,000, in May 1999.)

Inside the building are myriad laptops, PCs, and wireless devices that customers can use to make stock trades or do business at E-Trade Bank, plus a cellar-level trading-floor-cum-clubhouse for the company's "platinum" category of day traders, who conduct at least 75 trades a quarter (usually 10-20 a day).

Thirty employees - including licensed brokers, customer service representatives, and television studio staff - will be on hand 12 hours each weekday (shorter hours on Saturday and Sunday) to field questions and pamper customers, who can relax with free newspapers at a second-floor gourmet snack bar or buy E-Trade insignia T-shirts, toiletry sets, and other merchandise at a well-stocked gift shop.

He predicted that "people will change the way they're doing distribution" because of the E-Trade Center - and the 20 others like it that the company intends to construct around the world. "I think it will have an impact."

Mr. Cotsakos would not say how much money his company spent on the building, which houses 146 desktop workstations, 144 laptops, a broadcast control center, and what one E-Trade marketing executive described as "triple redundant Internet connections."

But a spokesman for Compaq Computer Corp., who was on hand to tout his company's role, said Compaq alone spent $2 million supplying the hardware and technology plumbing. Other partners are the automaker Lexus and Aether Systems Inc., a wireless services vendor.

Mr. Cotsakos, wearing blue jeans and an open collar and sitting in an armchair near a display rack of the book he wrote ("It's Your Money: The E-Trade Step by Step Guide to Online Investing"), dismissed suggestions that a precipitous market plunge is the wrong time to open such a monolith.

"There's never a good time," he said. "There is no good time to expand, and no good time to pull back. Our goal has always been to be one of the largest players in financial services."

The building has been open to select loyal customers for two and a half weeks. "The analysts like it, the customers of our soft launch really like it," Mr. Cotsakos said. "The buzz around it has been really tremendous."

Future E-Trade Centers are slated for such cities as Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, London, Frankfurt, Jakarta, and Singapore. "We'll surround those with our kiosks and ATMs," of which E-Trade now has 10,000, Mr. Cotsakos said. "We will modify them somewhat to fit in with the local culture."

Robert L. Turner, president of the New York interior design firm Turner Design Inc., said that an elaborate, theatrical-style store might not work for every branch, but it does make sense as a flagship.

"These are presence-positioners for companies that are coming out new in the field," said Mr. Turner.

ING Direct, the Internet banking arm of the Dutch banking and insurance giant ING Group, has opened Internet cafes where customers can check account balances or talk with representatives about banking products, and some U.S. banking companies, large and small, have set aside cozy areas for customers to Web-surf over coffee. But those efforts may look paltry when compared with E-Trade's showmanship.

Carol Parish, executive director of FutureBrand Worldwide in New York, said she had not seen the E-Trade Center, but the concept is not new. "Most, if not all, financial services providers are looking as much at the experiential side of the business as at efficiency."

Michael Sievert, E-Trade's chief marketing officer, said E-Trade Center simply "gives people the tools" to manage their finances, and neither encourages nor discourages stock trading. He acknowledged that in the bear market, "many of our customers are concluding that the right decisions for themselves are to trade less."

For people who sit on the trading sidelines, there is E-Trade Bank, which collected $1 billion of new customers assets in the fourth quarter became the 17th largest federally chartered bank, he said. An area of the new building is dedicated to E-Trade Bank, and there are three ATMs there that are always available.

"E-Trade Center's arrival is perfectly timed, just when people need the knowledge and information and in-person service the most," Mr. Sievert said.

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