week reiterated their view that financial institutions stand to benefit most from the Internet by using it as one of several integrated delivery channels.
That outlook stands in contrast to the aggressive Internet-only paths being taken by units of Bank One Corp., Citigroup Inc., and American Express Co. in recent months. They have built direct-bank offerings that exist apart from a branch network.
"The value of on-line is that it is another way for customers to reach you," said Sharon Osberg, executive vice president of on-line financial services at Wells Fargo & Co., speaking at a Jupiter Communications conference on on-line financial services. "It is part of an integrated channel strategy. The object is to figure out how to leverage on-line with the off-line channels and produce an experience that your customers will appreciate."
Ms. Osberg and Lawrence Baxter, executive vice president of digital financial services at Wachovia Bank N.A., said they are using the Internet as one more way to serve customers in their existing geographic footprints, instead of seeking to draw in far-flung potential users through an Internet-only offering.
"If we can keep those customers happy and satisfied, we would be way, way ahead of the game," Ms. Osberg said.
Wells is paying attention to the competition that could come from Bank One's WingspanBank.com subsidiary and Citigroup's citi/fi, Ms. Osberg said. But these new threats face the challenge of creating brands, an expensive proposition, she said.
Several brokerages also weighed in on the side of the integrated multichannel approach.
"The lines between the channels are going to blur, to the benefit of the client," said John L. Steffens, vice chairman of Merrill Lynch & Co. and head of the firm's U.S. private client group. Merrill Lynch has adopted the integrated channel approach in its Unlimited Access account, which charges one fee for on-line and off-line stock trading, along with a slew of advisory and planning services.
Mr. Steffens said 15% to 20% of retail stock trades are conducted on-line, but only 5% of the $13 trillion to $15 trillion of domestic assets available for investment are in on-line accounts. Extending on-line services to more of the customers holding those assets will require an integrated approach, he said.
"The larger marketplace is going to require fully integrating both the on-line capability on the one hand and spectacular off-line services on the other," Mr. Steffens said.
Sean Belkas, senior vice president of Fidelity Investments, said most consumers will move to "Web-centric" offerings that focus on the Internet, but also provide other services and channels.
Participants also were in agreement about the difficulty of creating seamless access across multiple channels. "This notion of integrating these channels -- this idea of bringing high-touch and high-tech together -- is something that is very hard to do," said Mark C. Thompson, senior vice president of electronic brokerage at Charles Schwab & Co. "Most companies are high-tech or high-touch."
Jeanine R. Brown, executive vice president and head of the interactive banking at Bank of America Corp., said that rapid growth in on-line banking among existing Bank of America customers has created strains on customer service.
"Our biggest challenge is handling that growth in the backroom," Ms. Brown said. "The whole setup process involves browser problems, systems problems, and ISP (Internet service provider) problems. And the bank stands behind servicing all of those issues, because the consumer doesn't really differentiate. Keeping up with that demand is one of our big challenges."