People coasting along on the Internet will find a signpost for Signet Banking Corp.'s investment products looming on their computer screens soon.
Richmond, Va.-based Signet finalized an agreement to offer its Imprint mutual fund wrap account through Compuserve, one of the nation's largest commercial on-line systems.
Signet's push into cyberspace is the second such offering for the $13 billion-asset banking company, and its mutual fund wrap account is believed to be the first offered by a bank on a commercial on-line service. Earlier this year, Signet unveiled an Internet link that allows consumers to apply for and receive information about financing higher education with help from the bank.
"We're trying to explore additional channels to capture people that our traditional branch network is missing," said James Eads, president of the banking company's broker-dealer unit, Signet Financial Services.
Bank analysts say the move is characteristic of Signet's pinpoint approach to marketing bank services and products outside its branch network. The banking company built up its micromanagement expertise through an ambitious credit card business, which it spun off last year.
Signet also wrapped up a deal last week to purchase the Blanchard Funds, a small mutual fund family better known for its extensive direct marketing apparatus than for its size.
"They haven't felt limited to the traditional range of bank products. Why would they limit their distribution channels?" asked Merrill Ross, a bank analyst with Wheat First Securities in Richmond. "They understand a bank's future is not limited to four walls and brick and mortar anymore."
Through the deal with Compuserve, a unit of Block Financial Corp., users will have access to information on the Imprint wrap account and an investment profile questionnaire. Interested users can fill out the form and either send it electronically to the bank or download it to their computers to mail or fax later.
The product will be available in the financial services area of Compuserve, and should be up and running within the next two weeks, company officials said. Signet is also working on software that would allow for nearly instantaneous transmission of the investment profile. And the product will be offered on the World Wide Web - the multimedia portion of the Internet - in the next few months, officials added.
Signet is setting its sights on the 15 million U.S. households that analysts predict will tap into Internet or commercial on-line services by the end of the decade. Compuserve alone has three million customers now - 94% of which are college educated and earn an average of $89,000 a year, said a spokesman for the Columbus, Ohio-based company.
Even so, some analysts are skeptical as to how many Signet customers will choose to shop for investment services through the Internet and commercial on-line networks. Conservative estimates are that only about 1% of consumers use home banking.
Mr. Eads is confident, however, and said that acquiring customers on- line is less costly than almost any other form of direct marketing.
"If there's one customer that we can serve and do it profitably, then we'll pursue that avenue," he said. "Delaying it is ignoring the fact that there is a base of people out there who want to be contacted this way."
A more compelling reason may be to get there first and build up name recognition, said James McCoy, senior vice president for Signet. He added that the start-up costs are negligible and that even a scant amount of business generated on-line would cover expenses. He would not, however, disclose sales targets.
The information gathered from new on-line customers "is pure gold," Mr. McCoy said. "Being out there first gives us an opportunity to find out what people want and need, and keeps us one step ahead of everyone else."