The wealthy usually prefer high touch to high tech when it comes to investment services - but some banks and financial service providers are finding success targeting affluent Chinese-Americans online.
Giants like Charles Schwab & Co. and E-Trade, large banks like HSBC USA, and small banks positioned in Chinese communities are tailoring Web sites to Chinese-Americans.
"Chinese-Americans have the highest PC ownership and the highest rate of Internet connection in the United States. The Chinese here have a higher level of education and are wealthier" than other minorities, said Eleanor Chang, marketing director and first vice president at UCBH Holdings Inc. in San Francisco, the holding company for United Commercial Bank there.
"They're younger, they're wealthier, and they are online," Ms. Chang said. A survey released last week by Sina.com, a Chinese entertainment and news Web site in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that the Internet is the best way to reach wealthy Chinese-Americans. It said that of Sina.com's 3,560 users, 91% invest in the stock market, 81% trade online, 48% invest in mutual funds, and 42% have retirement plans.
Karen Brux, director of marketing for Sina.com, said: "There is a misconception that all high-net-worth individuals want to sit down and have their hand held through the investing process. Chinese people are comfortable trading online. They don't feel the need to sit down with a broker or an agent."
But to reach wealthy individuals, she said, banks must speak their language - and for Chinese-Americans that means Mandarin or Chinese.
Ms. Chang said that UCBH has created a Web portal, ibankunited.com, that provides community, banking, and investment information in Chinese "that we aren't even offering on the English side of our site," she said.
Charles Schwab and E-Trade also have Chinese-language Web sites. HSBC USA's online banking site does not provide content in Chinese, but does offer a phone number for a call center with Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking operators. Leslie Bains, senior executive vice president at the New York subsidiary of the London bank, said it has seen significant growth in new Asian-American accounts since it started posting that phone number.
However, Mary Pan, head of HSBC USA's Asian markets team, said that "very, very high-end, high-net-worth Asians" want sophisticated, personal contact from providers of financial services. "When it comes to substantial transactions, people still want to come to us directly," she said.
Geoffrey Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in Providence, R.I., agreed that the affluent - Chinese or not - are gathering investment information but not conducting major transactions online.
"There is an element of day trading among the affluent, but that is their mad money. The bulk of their investing is not done online," he said. James Ely, head of wealth management services at Sanwa Bank, the Los Angeles unit of Sanwa Bank Ltd. in Tokyo, said that any California bank would be foolish to ignore the state's many wealthy Chinese-Americans, but that the Internet is not the only way to reach them.
But Ms. Chang said that an online presence is crucial for UCBH's future.
"We want to give them options," she said.
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