E-Trade's New York 'Flagship' Melds Banking, Theatrics

Article excerpt

Talk about bricks: E-Trade Group Inc. today plans to open a techno-glitzy four-level "flagship superstore" in midtown Manhattan that blurs the line between financial services and entertainment -- the first of 20 such complexes the company plans to deploy in big cities worldwide.

At first glance, the 30,000-square-foot store on Madison Avenue at 55th Street (a few blocks from NikeTown, the Disney Store, and the Hard Rock Cafe) is all about brand building and customer service.

But in an interview Wednesday with American Banker, E-Trade chairman and chief executive Christos M. Cotsakos described it as something else. Instead, he called his company's new street presence a catalyst for changing the pedestrian way that retail financial services are delivered.

Coming from Mr. Cotsakos, of course, that's nothing new.

Though the past year or so has seen E-Trade occupied with fairly basic financial services company pursuits like attracting bank deposits and stitching together an automated teller machine network, it has from the beginning been gesturing toward something larger.

According to Mr. Cotsakos, competing financial services companies' branches present themselves in a uniform format. But none has 108 large-scale plasma monitors (including some in the customer rest rooms) that flash real-time stock quotes or play advertisements featuring economist-quiz show host Ben Stein.

Yes, other financial services firms have been experimenting in recent months with Internet cafes that are largely meant to draw a private banking clientele. And many banks' online offerings have something off the beaten track to offer their e-age customers.

But Mr. Cotsakos considers E-Trade's approach to be sui generis. "We've had a lot of our competition come through here and look at it, and they say, 'What's this?' " Mr. Cotsakos said. "Whether it's a bank or a brokerage, they try to provide a service to customers, but they're all tired."

Three years in the making, the glass-and-chrome building houses a silver Lexus IS 300 that was hoisted by crane to the glassed-in second floor. (The car is the prize in an online promotion.

It also features a state-of-the-art television and radio studio -- visible to passers-by a la NBC's Today show -- that pumps live interviews with corporate executives and others to the Web, radio, and cable. (E-Trade announced its purchase of ClearStation Inc., with its registered virtual financial community of 90,000, in May 1999.)

Inside the building are myriad laptops, PCs, and wireless devices that customers can use to make stock trades or do business at E-Trade Bank, plus a cellar-level trading-floor-cum-clubhouse for the company's "platinum" category of day traders, who conduct at least 75 trades a quarter (usually 10-20 a day).

Thirty employees -- including licensed brokers, customer service representatives, and television studio staff -- will be on hand 12 hours each weekday (shorter hours on Saturday and Sunday) to field questions and pamper customers, who can relax with free newspapers at a second-floor gourmet snack bar or buy E-Trade insignia T-shirts, toiletry sets, and other merchandise at a well-stocked gift shop.

He predicted that "people will change the way they're doing distribution" because of the E-Trade Center -- and the 20 others like it that the company intends to construct around the world. "I think it will have an impact. …