BankAmerica Corp. created an opportunity for competitors this month when it said it was ending its agreement to run branches in Chicago's biggest supermarket chain.
But a bank that rushes into a pact with Jewel Food Stores without a clear-cut strategy to make the branches profitable could be in for some real headaches, observers said.
San Francisco-based Bank-America announced Oct. 15 that it would end its contract with American Stores Co., Jewel's parent, once the company finds another bank to take over 75 supermarket branches in Chicago. BankAmerica said it took a $112 million charge in the third quarter for severance and other costs associated with ending the contract.
Now the question is: Who will be willing to take on a new contract with Jewel?
BankAmerica said one of its problems was the lack of a traditional branch network to back up the supermarket offices. But bank employees also got bogged down doing customer service functions for the grocer, such as selling postage stamps, elevated train tokens, and bus passes. That was a stipulation of the contract, and it is unclear whether such functions would be part of any new agreement. Jewel officials did not return phone calls.
Companies that may be interested in a Jewel contract include Chicago- based St. Paul Bancorp and LaSalle Bank, Minneapolis-based TCF Financial Corp., and Michigan-based Old Kent Financial Corp. and First of America Bank Corp.
Banc One Corp., which two years ago declined the Jewel deal that BankAmerica picked up, may also be interested.
Representatives of these banks declined to comment in any detail, but none ruled out the possibility. "It's always something to look at," said Richard Arasmith, senior vice president of retail for Old Kent Bank Illinois.
"Chicago is so competitive you have to look at it," said a spokesman for LaSalle, a unit of ABN Amro Holding, Amsterdam.
Whoever takes over the branches will need a very specific game plan, said Douglas W. Ferris Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of National Commerce Bank Services Inc., Memphis.
Mr. Ferris, who advises banks on their strategies in supermarkets, said many have unfocused marketing and don't track customer profitability.
"A successful program is much more than putting a branch in a store and marketing and promoting it," he said. Any strategy should include more sophisticated data base marketing and profitability analysis, he said.
A veteran of supermarket banking agreed. "If you build, they won't come," said Frances B. Henry, a vice president at Cincinnati's Fifth Third Bancorp, which operates 97 supermarket branches. To be successful, she said, banks must balance good customer service with aggressive selling.
But for a company already in the market, buying 75 in-store branches could be a cheap way to expand.
"Chicago is a good, vibrant market," Mr. Ferris said. "There is no reason a program shouldn't be successful."
Mr. Ferris, who advised First Chicago NBD Corp. on its strategy with Jewel competitor Dominicks Finer Foods Inc., stressed that supermarket branching deals require a strong focus on comarketing.