Buying socks 'n stocks on Oxford Street

TUCKED away behind the bed section in Debenhams department store, on Oxford Street here, is an indicator that the financial services revolution in Britain is beginning to reach the man in the street. Quilter Goodison, a British stockbrokerage, has set up what it calls its ``Money Center'' boutique, where shoppers browsing for furniture can buy and sell shares as easily as they would select a chair.

Recently, one customer bought 2,500 shares of Sears Holdings Ltd., the British retailing group that owns Selfridge's department store, and then crossed the floor to buy a bed.

Another, accounting firm director Edward Lau, stopped in to buy 1,000 shares of Cluff Oil Ltd., an oil exploration company, for 307 ($470).

``You can call it a friendly atmosphere here,'' he says. ``The big brokers in the City [London's financial district] are not interested in the small investor. If you are talking about buying only a few hundred shares from them, you can forget it.''

Indeed, share ownership has traditionally been more a prerogative of Britain's aristocracy. And a certain mystique and clubbiness have always surrounded the City, putting off those who felt uncomfortable moving in such elite circles.

The American-inspired idea of selling ``stock and socks'' together -- typified by Sears, Roebuck with its Dean Witter Reynolds brokerage stations -- has long been a concept alien to most British financial institutions.

But in the run-up to London's ``big bang,'' the major deregulation of the financial scene here scheduled for this fall, all that is changing (see Richard Nenneman's column on this page).

Quilter's attempt to woo private investors is only one way British companies are reaching out to the ordinary man and woman.

It is a process that has been spurred by privatization, the Thatcher government's policy of selling off many giant state-owned companies to the private sector. The sale of British Telecom, Jaguar, and other large companies has made investors of many Britons who had never before thought of themselves as being shareholders.

Even with privatization, however, the number of actual investors in the stock market here is small. The London Stock Exchange says that about 3 million of Britain's 56 million people own shares.

This compares with New York Stock Exchange figures showing roughly 47 million shareowners in the United States.

Still, with the government pushing direct share ownership, many brokerages believe the potential for a larger market is there, and each has selected its own method to try to enlarge its numbers of clients.

Quilter Goodison, for example, offers not only on-the-spot instant dealing in shares and free advice, but brokers also will draw up a model portfolio for customers who supply their ages, amount they want to invest, and preference for income or capital profit. In addition, the brokerage's ``Money Center'' offers tax planning, advice on bonds and currency movements, along with other investment services.

Quilter's aim in opening in a department store was to try to tap into a growing market of investors.

It set up its money center at Debenhams ``because I thought there is a new generation of investors in the U.K. as a result of privatization,'' said Tony Richards, the Quilter director who set up the new service. ``I sought to provide a friendly place where investors could come.''

Mr. Richards declined to give specifics, but he asserted that business is even better than it was when the money center opened last fall.

And it has apparently been a hit with the public. While many investors have dealt with just a few hundred shares, some transactions have been much bigger.

One customer sold 4,000 shares of Reuters PLC, the information news agency, while a retired naval officer bought 2,000 shares of British Telecom. Moreover, requests for more information about the innovation have come in from all over England and as far away as Spain and Saudi Arabia.

Quilter's money center has been so successful that Richards planned to open another in Debenhams Bristol branch this month and a more conventional brokerage office branch in Truro, Cornwall.

Nonetheless, some brokers are skeptical as to whether Quilter's unconventional strategy is the best way to acquire more clients. They say Quilter could wind up with too many modest-income customers who do minimal trading and cost a lot to serve.

``As an exercise in visibility, Quilter's money center has been excellent,'' says one British broker, who declines to be identified.

``But whether it's been a financial success, only Quilter's knows. The real problem is to what extent it is economical, and I have doubts about that. There is a scarceness of qualified people to staff an operation like that. You need people of quality with skill in various areas, and this is quite a major constraint.''

Another broker was also doubtful about the success of Quilter's venture.

``We are set against that approach because we think it is reducing the common denominator,'' says Peter Broughton, a director in the private-client department at Hoare Govett Ltd.

``If we opened up in the High Street, we would get ``sock and stocks'' business,'' Mr. Broughton says. But `if a customer inherits 1,000, he would sell the stock and buy a washing machine. This is not the business we want.''

Nonetheless, financial firms of all kinds are realizing the need to come up with more imaginative approaches to expanding their business.

Hoare Govett, a leading British brokerage, has been among the first to establish a no-frills dealing service that could become a discount operation when commissions become negotiable.

Hoare Govett's ``Dealercall Card'' allows the holder to dial a broker who can execute the order, but who gives no advice. There is a minimum transaction size of 750.

Customers can also take advantage of Hoare Govett's tele-broking service. Through Prestel, a ``viewdata'' system that can be used with television sets or personal computers, they can have access to 2,000 pages of research and also place orders for shares.

The tele-broking system is owned by British Telecom and the information is sent over phone lines.

Kleinwort Grieveson & Co., another London brokerage, also offers a variety of services for the private investor, but its latest addition is a no-frills ShareCall Service, similar to the one provided by Hoare Govett.

No investment advice is given, and commissions charged are the minimum, although the brokerage hopes to be able to reduce these further when the ``big bang'' occurs.

Laing & Cruickshank has opted for another strategy to increase its client base. Rather than conduct a heavy advertising campaign, Laing & Cruickshank is seeking to expand by acquiring provincial stockbrokers elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It has taken over one such office in Belfast, has set up operations in the Channel Isles, and is seeking to take control of another firm in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Still other companies, like James Capel & Co., have chosen to take minority stakes in regional stockbrokers, leaving them fairly independent.

Whatever strategies these financial institutions adopt to increase their number of customers, they are all acutely aware of the need to be more innovative to survive the intense competition expected after ``big bang.''

``We are gradually being dragged into the 20th century,'' concedes John Kennett, a fund manager in the private client of Phillips & Drew. ``If we want more clients, we have to go out and get them.''

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