'Financial supermarkets' - a new era for consumers

Will the shopping list of the future read ''nuts and bolts,'' ''garden hose, '' ''car insurance,'' and ''100 shares of a good stock''? It might, since the era of the ''financial supermarket'' is coming. Although it will be awhile until consumers will be able to stroll down the aisle of a store, buying mutual funds on one side and annuities on the other, it won't be long before consumers will be able to buy stocks, bonds, and mutual funds from the owner of the store, from their credit card company, insurance agent or bank office.

Mixing the garden hose with the stock certificates will come about because a spate of mergers on Wall Street is changing the face of the brokerage industry. The most recent mergers include:

* Sears Roebuck & Co.'s purchase for $607 million of Dean Witter Reynolds, which has 330 branches around the country.

* American Express's acquisition last summer for $1 billion of Shearson which has 230 offices nationwide.

* The Prudential's purchase for $385 million last summer of Bache Halsey Stuart Shields with 200 branch offices.

In addition, the decision by the Reagan administration to begin deregulating the banking industry could add the commercial banks and the savings and loans to the list of entries vying for a portion of the consumer's investment dollars. The Reagan administration is pressing Congress to allow banks to operate mutual funds and expand municipal bond underwriting.

All of these changes, says Edward O'Brien, president of the Securities Industry Association, ''are going to broaden the products and services to the customer as all these entities come together.'' Joseph Spivack, an analyst with the Value Line Investment Survey, says the mergers will be a step toward ''a more homogenized securities industry.''

For example, Bache customers will probably begin to hear about annuities and other programs of the Pru while some of the huge insurance company's 50 million policyholders receive Bache literature; American Express cardholders will no doubt be solicited by Shearson; and, finally, Sears with its 859 stores, 2,700 insurance offices, 24 million credit card customers, and 24 million mail-order catalog subscribers will no doubt try to lure customers to its Dean Witter Reynolds subsidiary.

Since most of the mergers are only a few months old, most of the newly merged firms have yet to begin offering new products. However, the brokerage houses and parent firms are in the process of studying how their gears can mesh.

For example, Bache recently offered a tax exempt mutual fund that featured the Prudential as its adviser. Industry analysts point out that such combinations will probably increase. Initially it may not have any impact on the consumer, but eventually it might result in cost savings for the firms, which are passed on to the consumer.

In fact, if the mergers are to work, says H. Virgil Sherrill, president of the Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Group Inc., ''they must benefit the consumer.'' Mr. Sherrill predicts that if the industry conducts its business ''through efficiency and cost reductions'' they will benefit the consumer. For example, Bache and the Prudential both have large electronic data systems. Sherrill forsees more integrated use of equipment, potentially saving money. ''There is a lot of work we can jointly share,'' says the Bache president, ''and a lot of technology that neither one of us has but can use.'' In March, Bache and the Pru plan to revamp their electronic data systems to see what systems can be combined.

At Shearson-American Express, John McCann, the firm's Chatham, N.J., branch manager says his ompany is also studying how best to use the new merger. He says , ''it wouldn't surprise me if we include a travel person in the office and introduce Fireman's Fund casualty insurance to a lot of people.''According to investment analyst Spivack, the really significant developments are yet to come. He notes that Merrill Lynch, the nation's largest brokerage house, has developed an interest in electronic shopping and has invested in a company in Connecticut who specializes in such wizardry. Investors could receive financial services directly in their homes, perusing stock quotes and placing orders on an electronic terminal.Through American Express's cable TV subsidiary, Warner-Amex Cable, Shearson customers likewise may be able to shop electronically. In fact, Shearson probably has an edge on other companies in this regard since Warner-Amex Cable has been quite successful at winning new cable franchises.One thing consumers of the newly merged companies will notice quickly is an increase in the volume of their mail. Nearly all of the mergers will present the brokers with enormous mailing lists. ''I expect we will see utilization of each other's customer base,'' says Bache's Sherrill, ''but I'm not sure when it will evolve. It won't be in the next week or next month.'' The Pru has 50 million policyholders and Bache about 500,000 customers. Dean Witter Reynolds has 650, 000 clients, while Sears has 24 million credit card customers. American Express has 9.5 million ''green credit card'' customers and Shearson has 500,000 customers.Another immediate impact of the mergers will be a proliferation of the so-called ''cash management accounts,'' pioneered by Merrill Lynch. These accounts permit individuals to receive interest on their checking accounts at money market rates. An individual can write checks or use a credit card to draw money against the account. Most brokers require at least the equivalent of $20, 000 of market value in order have a cash management account. Even so, Merrill Lynch is reportedly opening up thousands of new accounts per week because of it. With the new mergers, the other brokers now will have the resources to open up similiar accounts.McCann of American Express-Shearson thinks the entry of Sears into the business will probably be the most stimulative of the mergers, opening up the concept of the ''financial supermarket'' to the consumer for the first time. Bache's Sherrill agrees, adding, ''I don't think the Dean Witter salesman will sell iceboxes, soap, and securities, but with that type of customer list, there will be a lot of services beneficial to the consumer.'' Sears, still in the process of legalizing the merger, declined to comment. Earlier in the year, however, Sears chairman Edward R. Telling stated, ''Our goal is to become the largest financial service entity.''Sears has the potential of attaining that goal. Its customer base is huge. Not only does Sears have 24 million credit card accounts, but Dean Witter brokers cite a recent SRI International study that found Sears also has twice as many customer-families earning over $36,000 per year as does American Express.Computers eventually will be able to tie together financial information from Sears' Allstate Insurance subsidiary, its Savings and Loan in California, Coldwell, Banker & Co. Inc., its newly acquired commercial real estate brokerage firm, and its mortgage banking subsidiary, Allstate Enterprises. Eventually a broker at Dean Witter Reynolds can recommend an insurance agent at Allstate or mortgage broker at Allstate Enterprises. Conversely, a broker at Allstate could send new customers to Dean Witter Reynolds. And, as one observer hypothesized, with automatic teller machines in its stores, Sears could begin to compete against the local banks, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express in the battle for control of the consumer's dollar.Naturally, not everyone thinks Sears will be that successful. McBee Butcher, executive vice-president of Butcher & Singer, a Philadelphia brokerage firm, points out ''there is a big difference between retailing, selling insurance, and working in an entrepreneurial mode.'' Furthermore, Mr. Butcher says, ''I'm not sure the class investor we are dealing with really wants to deal with Sears, or a financial supermarket, as his investment adviser.''

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