Supermarket approach to financial services: one-stop shopping may be good way to start
A financial supermarket - literally - is operating in Pembroke, Mass. For the last several months, customers at a ''Super'' Stop & Shop have been able to pick up a quart of milk, a dozen roses, and 100 shares of AT&T. While they're at it, they can have someone prepare their tax return, buy a life insurance policy, or invest in mutual funds.
Next month, officials of the Boston-based Stop & Shop Companies hope to open a second ''super'' store in Danbury, Conn.
Stop & Shop isn't the first supermarket chain to enter the widening field of financial services. And it's far from the first company with a base in something other than financial services to expand into this area. But it does illustrate the diverse and often confusing world that financial services has become.
There are, for example, insurance firms owned by companies like American Can (originally in packaging), Ashland Oil (energy), General Electric (appliances and electrical equipment), and St. Regis (paper).
''Life has gotten a lot more complicated,'' says Jay Rabinowitz, vice-president for financial planning at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. ''And there's just no way that you can compare the financial world as it affects the consumer today with the financial world of 10 years ago. The example I always like to use is money market funds. Ten years ago, hardly anybody had even heard of money market funds. Today, it's the exception when someone doesn't have a money fund of some sort.''
Where does this diversification leave consumers who are looking for the best places to buy insurance, start a savings program, apply for a mortgage, trade stocks, embark on financial planning, or open a credit card account? Should they go to a one-stop financial service firm where they can buy everything? Or, like the gourmet cook who goes to one market for fish, another for vegetables, and another for exotic spices, should they spread their money and time among a variety of specialists?
''It depends on income, a person's assets, and how complicated their finances are,'' says James Jorgensen, publisher of a Cupertino, Calif., newsletter on financial planning. ''But I don't believe in financial planning from firms who are totally captive of their own products. Specialized firms have the freedom to recommend and point out any kind of investment - not just those they're trying to push in-house.''
''For moderate-income people, firms like Sears are probably quite acceptable, '' says James Gipson, president of Pacific Financial Research, a Los Angeles financial planning firm. Customers can walk into places like Sears, Roebuck & Co., Prudential-Bache Securities, Shearson Lehman/American Express, and Merrill Lynch, Mr. Gipson notes, sit down with a broker or customer representative, and get an overall look at many investment options, their risks, and income potential.
In fact, says Perrin Long, a financial analyst at Lipper Analytical Services in New York, this is probably a key to whatever success these financial ''supermarkets'' may have. Mr. Long is skeptical that, in the long run, the concept can succeed over the established system of specialized financial service firms.
''There is nothing in the cards at the moment that says that we'll end up down the road with one-stop financial supermarkets where the customer gets products sold to them at any lower price than what they're paying right now,'' he contends. One reason for this belief, he says, is that since brokerage commission charges were ''unbundled'' on May 1, 1975, permitting firms to set their own rates for transactions, full-service brokerage commissions have gone up about 40 percent.
Second, he says, ''I don't think the supermarket approach will turn out to be a viable concept in the longer term.'' The reason, he says, is that most people are too much in the habit of making financial decisions after talking to someone they know: their spouse or some other relative, a fellow worker, a neighbor, or a golfing buddy. As long as people do this, Mr. Long believes, they will get a variety of recommendations on financial products and the places to obtain them - a sure path to diversity.
If there is a fertile field of potential customers for the supermarket approach, he says, it is the 25-to-35 age group, people who have not yet begun a systematic savings programs, have not yet developed a comprehensive insurance package, have not purchased their first home, and have hardly begun to think about retirement. These people could be introduced to a broad-based company like Sears, perhaps through Coldwell-Banker, its real estate division, and continue working with other Sears divisions, like Allstate for insurance, or Dean Witter for investments, including individual retirement accounts.
There can be good reason to start with a one-stop firm, said Alan Gart, a financial consultant in Philadelphia and author of ''The Insider's Guide to the Financial Services Revolution'' (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, $24.95).
''If the financial planning is free or there's a modest fee, it can pay to go in and get some ideas,'' Mr. Gart says. ''But not just one; go to two or three.''
Getting some ideas seems to describe the direction some of the big players in the financial services game are heading.
At Shearson Lehman/American Express, new customers are asked to spend 30 to 90 minutes with a ''financial consultant,'' says Robert A. Leo, an executive vice-president and director of marketing and sales at Shearson. The consultant, who is not a broker, discusses the customer's financial goals, tax situation, current assets, insurance coverage, and objectives. With over 250 products or services to offer clients, this session helps narrow down the choices.
The financial consultant also tries to look at what kind of risks the client is willing to take. For example, he says, ''the typical profile of most widows doesn't fit in with options trading. But on the other side of it, she may have sufficient assets and wants to do a little of it.''
''This is not a financial plan,'' Mr. Leo says of the service. ''And there is no charge'' for the initial visit.
Even though Shearson/Amex has over 250 offerings, Leo says, ''we cannot be all things to all people.'' For this reason, the firm is going after an ''upscale'' market loosely defined as earning $40,000 or more a year and in the 35-to-65 age bracket, although there is plenty of room to vary this, he says.
Leo urges these people and anyone else having a meeting with a financial services representative to come armed with a lot of questions. For instance: How do I know if I'm an aggressive or conservative investor? How do I establish my financial goals? What guidelines should I follow in allocating my assets? What questions should I ask when someone recommends a stock? How can I use credit to my advantage?
These and other questions are discussed in a free booklet published by the firm, ''The More Serious You Are As an Investor, the More Questions You Should Ask.'' Write: Shearson Lehman/American Express, PO. Box 4801, Huntington Station , N.Y. 11746.
At Prudential-Bache Securities, ''we believe that although people want convenience, there's a limit to how much they value that convenience,'' says Alan Altschuler, senior vice-president. For this reason, he adds, ''we feel the 'financial supermarket' concept is a fairly specious one.'' The concept used in the Pru-Bache ads - ''total financial planning'' - means that the customer is not sent down aisles of financial products to choose one from this shelf and another from that one.
''We have a very specifically structured computer-based system for taking information and getting a financial profile of the person'' who walks into a Pru-Bache office, Mr. Altschuler says. The process starts with a questionnaire and this information is fed into a computer. ''Based on the information that has been given, recommendations for meeting various financial needs will be listed.'' The broker or account executive is then supposed to use his or her own judgment to ask questions, get answers, and make more specific investment or financial planning suggestions, Alschuler says.
Even here, he acknowledges, there are times when someone may want to go elsewhere for specific advice in such areas as tax or estate planning. ''People may want to go to their own accountant or lawyer for this,'' he said.
Merrill Lynch has installed a ''client service representative'' in about a quarter of its offices, Mr. Rabinowitz says. ''That, in effect, becomes the first step.'' After asking the customer about goals, assets, risk tolerance, previous experience, and other areas, this person will try to match the customer with an appropriate broker.
Like the other firms, there is no obligation for the first interviews. You can find out what the firm offers, find a financial expert you feel comfortable with and get some idea of the products offered.
Even though the financial services revolution has resulted in dozens - perhaps hundreds - of products and services that did not exist a decade ago, it need not be daunting. As Mr. Long at Lipper says, ask friends and other people you know.
And as Mr. Gart says, visit at least two of these firms. Ask as many questions as you want (you might even want to take notes on the answers), and make no commitments on the first visit. Whether you are a candidate for the full-service financial supermarket or better off with a specialist will depend on your income, previous experience, and preference for certain kinds of investments.
In most instances, upper-income people are comfortable with the financial service people they are already using. But for the person who knows he has to do something with his money but doesn't know what, a few visits to companies with a full range of savings, investment, real estate, and insurance options are probably a good way to start.