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Consumers Mostly Window-Shop on Web

Despite the best efforts of financial services firms to lure consumers to buy online, most web surfers at those companies' Internet sites remain window-shoppers.

That was one of the findings of a recent study conducted by Mercer Management Consulting of New York.

While traffic at financial services sites has been brisk since July 1999 - new arrivals and visitors to those sites have increased 150 percent over that period, or more than twice as fast as overall Internet usage - the number of consumers making purchases at those sites is far less than at locations selling computer hardware, books, travel, clothing and other goods and services online.

"What we're seeing - at least in the financial services world - is that folks are using the Internet to gather information, compare costs and product features, then go to the non-Internet channel to make the purchase," said John Williams, a principal at Mercer.

The survey of 1200 consumers who have purchased goods or services on the Internet found that only five percent of the polling sample had purchased insurance online and only three percent had obtained loans or mortgages there.

"Consumers still prefer to conduct a large percent of their transactions over non-digital channels," said Mike Riley, a vice president at Mercer in a statement. "This reluctance continues despite the fact that substantial segments of consumers - in some cases more than 40 percent - express openness to the idea of purchasing financial services online."

Few financial services companies have been able to take advantage of digital capabilities, said Riley.

"Just getting on the Internet isn't going to create value," Williams said. "You've got to incorporate that presence into your overall business design."

The study found that brokerage and banking companies have been better at taking advantage of digital capabilities than the insurance industry.

It called brokerage firms like Charles Schwab and Ameritrade "reinventors," and banks like Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan "innovators." On the other hand, insurance companies are "traditionalists," or slow movers whose digital investments have not been directed at improving their core businesses.

That has had a direct impact on the traffic at insurance sites, the study found. The insurance sector lags all other financial services sectors in Internet usage. Fewer people visit insurance sites than they do to other financial services sites. They also spend less time there and they return less often.

While engaging in wired commerce is a sign of the new economy, it is old economy names that are commanding the most visits to their websites, the study found. Companies like Merrill Lynch of New York, Charles Schwab of San Francisco and Fidelity Investments of Boston are doing that by deploying digital designs that give consumers lots of information and choice.

Consumers want to deal with a company that can give them multiple channels of access to financial services and products, according to Michael Durand, a spokesperson for Charles Schwab.

"Consumers want it all," he said. "They want branches, great online tools and 24-7 phone access. They want access to products in the way they want to access them."

For example, most Schwab customers want to execute trades online, but they would rather open accounts in an office. Eighty-one percent of all trades at Schwab are done online, while 70 percent of all new accounts are opened in the firm's offices.

The multiple-channel approach is part of the strategy of another institution cited in the Mercer survey - Wells Fargo of San Francisco.

"Our Internet services group is looking for opportunities to be better than a bank and better than a broker," said Jennie LaSalle, senior vice president for Internet investment services. "We're also looking at our broad base of customers and offering unique opportunities for our customers or unique products that might not be available elsewhere."