Banking companies that traditionally focused on well-heeled investors are expanding their scope to include retail bank customers with less to invest.
Some, such as Harris Bankcorp, Chicago, are planning to introduce investment professionals into branches. Others, including Summit Bancorp, Princeton, N.J., are ratcheting up their retail brokerage services to include a financial planning perspective.
The emphasis on mass marketing is driven by the desire for fee income.
"While brokerage, trust, and private banking are great opportunities to do that, we also see a huge benefit in broadening our retail customer relationships," said Gail H. Partain, president of Mercantile Investment Services Inc., a subsidiary of Mercantile Bancorp., St. Louis.
Though many banks - including Chase Manhattan Corp. and NationsBank Corp.-have made inroads with retail customers in investment sales, observers said that other banks were comfortable staying close to their wealthier, existing client bases.
But record-breaking market returns are bringing the masses through the doors.
"The unrelenting drive of the stock market itself is creating a demand that is starting to well up from their mass market that they hadn't seen before," said David Ross Palmer, an East Falmouth, Mass.-based consultant to private banking divisions.
Mercantile's entrance into the retail investment market was accelerated by its acquisition of banks already in the business.
It has 130 full-time investment representatives and 100 part-time platform representatives-about twice as many as two years ago.
Mercantile has also made some strategic moves.
For instance, sales and marketing for the bank's Arch family of mutual funds were aligned with its brokerage for retail distribution in February.
Retail fund sales to bank customers have increased 50% since then, according Ms. Partain, who declined to disclose the dollar amounts. The Arch funds have $4.2 billion of assets under management.
Observers said banks fresh to the retail market are following the lead of competitors who demonstrated its viability.
"The brokerages, the First Unions, the larger banking organizations have made progress" in getting retail business, said Norman R. Lubin, chief executive officer of FMS Consulting, Blue Bell, Pa.
"These other organizations are coming on board now that they've seen the trend ... is real, to defend their own customers," he added.
Some banks may have held back from the mass market after seeing competitors bruised by getting into the game.
A few banks in the vanguard of retail investment services, such as NationsBank Corp., were sued by customers who claimed misleading sales practices.
"Banks tend to learn from each other. They see somebody step into the field and get their nose bloody and say, "Why should I do that?" Mr. Palmer said.
Summit, which started its retail program in 1991, is increasing service and products to "earn back some of the customers we've lost to the wire houses," said Jack D. Cussen, senior vice president of Summit's financial services group.
The group doubled to 100 the number of investment representatives over the past two years. A sweep account for retail investors will be introduced this year and a wrap account is also in the works.
Mr. Cussen said the retail program is geared more toward consulting with clients rather than taking orders.
He said gauging suitability and planning for the future are especially important if new customers are drawn to the market because of the bull run.
Swelling retail demand, even at banks that did not historically court those customers, "also may be an harbinger of the end of the stock bull market," Mr. Palmer said.
The branch investors "may be the last ones in the door."