If Chemical Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank don't know what their retail customers are thinking about their pending merger, then a local thrift wants to offer them a clue.

Greater New York Savings Bank, which at $2.6 billion of assets may be just big enough to tweak the money-center powers, commissioned a research company called Global Strategy Group to gauge New York-area reaction to the merger.

From the Chase-Chemical standpoint, the findings were not entirely negative. But they gave Greater New York plenty of grist for an advertising campaign that its chairman, Gerard C. Keegan, said will underscore its old- fashioned community banking values.

The telephone survey of 350 bank account holders in New York and Long Island, conducted last week and accurate to plus or minus 5%, revealed an almost total awareness of the deal: 68% knew about it without prompting; another 23% needed reminding but had heard about it.

"Even I was surprised at how much attention it is getting," Mr. Keegan said.

But as the eight-question survey delved into the general bank-merger trend and specifically Chase-Chemical, more and more uneasiness surfaced.

When asked how mergers affect consumers, far more opinions were negative (e.g., service declines, fees rise) than positive (service or efficiency improves).

Consumers across the country were less opinionated in the 1994 American Banker/Gallup consumer survey. One in four said they recently experienced a financial institution merger, 58% saw no change in service quality, and the rest were evenly split over whether service improved or got worse.

Half of the Greater's respondents said they would change banks if the Chase merger made banking inconvenient. More people than not were concerned about the customer-friendliness of the big banks, the likelihood that branches will close in poor neighborhoods, and that Chase and Chemical will form a "virtual monopoly."

The closest call was on the premise that the merger will "decrease the overall quality of service": 58% agreed strongly or somewhat, 36% disagreed, and the rest didn't have a response.

"We doubt that the survey is accurate," Chemical Banking Corp. responded on Friday. "But if it is, it means the new Chase will delight and surprise an awful lot of people."

One marketing expert wondered why Greater New York took those shots, rather than a bigger competitor like Bank of New York or Dime Savings. Another pointed to the irony that Fraser Seitel, a longtime Chase Manhattan Corp. public affairs executive, is now working with Greater New York - in investor relations.

A company trying to make points through market research has to take pains to maintain credibility, said Robert Stemper, a former Citibank marketer and consultant. "This is probably more valuable in a public relations than a marketing sense," he said.

Mr. Keegan sees both benefits: "We get name recognition, and an opportunity to take the position that a community bank like ours can continue to be successful offering high-quality, personalized service."

Greater New York plans to open branches while others are closing them, Mr. Keegan said. It hasn't been in a merger since the 1970s. If it does merge, his message won't backfire, he said, because the local commitment would not change.

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