Online brokerages are opening walk-in branches in an effort to boost assets and accommodate customers who may be uncomfortable doing business strictly online.
In May, DLJdirect, the online brokerage service of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., opened its first branch office in Boca Raton, Fla. The company plans to open another six branches in the next few months at locations yet to be disclosed.
E-Trade Group Inc. went brick-and-mortar in September when it opened its first branch in a SuperTarget store outside Atlanta. The brokerage company and the retailer are in discussions about building branches in other locations.
Web Street Inc., founded in 1996, opened its first branch in Beverly Hills last year and another in Boston in October. The Deerfield, Ill., company plans to open additional branches in Denver and San Francisco shortly, with others to follow in New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Europe.
Shalin Patel, a research analyst with Gomez Advisors Inc., a Lincoln, Mass., research firm that ranks online brokers, said the new branches reflect an attempt to serve a new breed of online investor. The "hyperactive" trader who makes more than 10 trades monthly and requires little information is no longer the norm, he said.
Today's online traders more typically fall into three categories, Mr. Patel said - the one-stop shopper looking for trading and services such as banking on one site; the life-goal planner; and the serious investor who trades actively but also wants financial planning and tools.
"It's not about cheap trades anymore," he said. "You need to be able to provide financial planning tools, research, and the ability for customers to pick up a phone and talk to a customer service rep or go in and talk to an adviser. It's that physical presence, which the next wave of investors needs. I think it's definitely necessary."
Web Street president Joe Barr said that, as low trading prices have become common, customers have begun demanding additional services and products. "The pressure is on firms like us and our competitors to produce more value for that commission," he said.
While traditional brokerages such as Charles Schwab & Co. were criticized a few years ago for their high overhead, online firms are now realizing the potential of walk-in locations to attract assets and provide an edge over Internet-only competitors, Mr. Barr said.
DLJdirect president Glenn Tongue said the company recognized that a large percentage of competitors' new assets were coming through the doors of their branches. It made sense for DLJdirect to try the same strategy, he said.
"You can't help but see that those online brokers with a significant branch presence already have significantly larger customer asset bases than the pure-play online brokers," Mr. Tongue said.
Security is another factor. In September, E-Trade acknowledged that its Web site was vulnerable to a common attack that could allow a hacker to intercept a customer's browser and gain access to personal information.
Just days earlier the company had another security problem with a "cookie" that is used to log in to the brokerage. The cookie was encoded, not encrypted, and a hacker could unscramble it and obtain a customer's user name and password.
Mr. Patel said safety matters like that "would be a reason for some of these firms to offer" nonvirtual branches. "I think that is an issue, and firms are realizing that."
Tim Whitehead, E-Trade's senior manager of corporate communications, said that, while the company's branches are designed to give customers a range of delivery channels, they are also meant to reassure them "that there are real people, qualified people, behind these transactions."
Mr. Tongue said some customers feel uneasy depositing or withdrawing money on the Web, and may be intimidated by the application process.
"There's a comfort level knowing there's somebody you can walk down the street and see if you have an issue," he said.
The branches are also great for advertising, Mr. Tongue said. "Every day, given a certain traffic pattern, your customers are walking past those. They're branch locations, but they're also permanent billboards."
Branches also allow brokerages to go after new customer segments. E-Trade's 440-square-foot SuperTarget location will contrast sharply with the two-level, 35,000-square-foot branch the company plans to open next year on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
Mr. Whitehead said that though New York customers will probably be more active traders with higher incomes than the SuperTarget clientele, the two location are aiming at a similar demographic.
But Mr. Patel said E-Trade might want its Manhattan branch to attract a wealthier client base. The company's average account is about $25,000, versus about $100,000 at Charles Schwab, he said.
"For them to keep competitive with the Schwabs out there, they might also need to cater to a different customer," Mr. Patel said.
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