Selling Socks and Stocks

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American bankers, already worried about steep interest rates and shaky loans, had yet another reason to feel edgy last week. Sears, Roebuck and Co., the largest U.S. retailer, launched a new offensive in its campaign to become a major force in the financial services business. In eight stores, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the company opened the first branches of its Sears Financial Network, a kind of supermarket where shoppers can buy stocks, bonds, insurance and houses, or even open up Individual Retirement Accounts.

If these experimental boutiques are successful, Sears is expected to expand the new business to the rest of its 851 retail stores and some 25 million credit-card customers. Admits Joyce Healy, a senior vice president at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, one of New York's largest banks: "Sears will be a very formidable competitor."

At each Sears financial center, customers can choose from a panoply of services. At the desk of Allstate Insurance, a longtime Sears subsidiary, a shopper can have his car, house and family covered. Moving a few steps to Coldwell, Banker & Co., which was the largest independent real estate brokerage company in the U.S. until Sears bought it last year, the customer can get information from a desktop computer about scores of houses for sale in surrounding neighborhoods. The next alcove is Dean Witter Reynolds, the big brokerage firm that Sears also acquired last year. Clients there can put money into stocks, bonds or money-market funds. In California, where Sears owns the Allstate Savings and Loan Association, customers can even open ordinary passbook savings accounts.

Though some bankers are doubtful that many people will want to buy their stocks and socks under the same roof, Sears officials believe that the company's trusted name and the allure of one-stop shopping will attract masses of new customers. Another Sears attraction may be that its financial centers will not be keeping bankers' hours. Most will be open until 9 on weeknights, all day Saturday and on Sunday afternoon. Says Sears Vice President Charles Moran: "You have to visit other financial service offices when they want to be open. Ours are open when you want to visit."

The Sears Financial Network got off to a good start last week. At a store in suburban Chicago, for example, a steady stream of curious shoppers dropped by the new center, which is nestled between a rack of basketballs and shelves of automotive supplies. Frank Fortini, 21, was toting a dry-cleaning bag in one hand as he picked up some Coldwell, Banker real estate brochures with the other. Said he: "I already have Allstate insurance. Now my fiancée and I are looking for a house." Sears seems determined to live up to its old slogan: "Sears has everything."