Let's All Pick on E*Trade

E*Trade's (Nasdaq: ETFC  ) rivals smell blood. With lending-market markdowns festering at the discount broker, competitors are starting to position themselves to make the most of its 4.7 million retail accounts.

You can't really blame them. Even though critics think the chances of bankruptcy at E*Trade are remote -- and even though protection is in place for all but the largest of accounts -- the perception is enough to send accountholders scrambling to steadier pastures.

Web-savvy trade enablers such as optionsXpress (Nasdaq: OXPS  ) and TradeKing claim that they've been flooded with requests to transfer existing E*Trade brokerage accounts their way. Meanwhile, TD AMERITRADE (Nasdaq: AMTD  ) and Charles Schwab (Nasdaq: SCHW  ) -- the only two discounters with enough girth to swallow E*Trade whole -- made public comments last week about the desirability of acquiring what's left of E*Trade's accounts.

"I think I would be very willing and able to analyze and pay for accounts if we could find a way to buy accounts," Charles Schwab said during his company's autumn business update.

"We like their retail business, but we must figure out a way that makes sense for both sets of shareholders," TD AMERITRADE CEO Joe Moglia told CNBC over the weekend.

It sounds as though E*Trade's two largest rivals are more interested in carving out the company's retail brokerage unit than in consuming the entire company. That's probably not much of consolation for existing E*Trade clients, and they could very well vote with their feet long before any buyout ever happened.

Zecco brings the noise
Smaller Web-based players, such as Interactive Brokers (Nasdaq: IBKR  ) , TradeStation (Nasdaq: TRAD  ) , and Investools (Nasdaq: SWIM  ) , could become beneficiaries of any exodus from E*Trade. But in reality, how likely is it that someone who gets burned by an online bellwether like E*Trade will take a chance on an even smaller upstart?

So the potential winners need to stay classy. They need to respect E*Trade and --

What's that? Zecco's spoofing the E*Trade monkey on YouTube? Playing off the chimpanzee star of the costly E*Trade Super Bowl ads, Zecco has a costumed monkey getting booted from a brokerage that looks a lot like E*Trade. He resorts to drinking wine and panhandling in the streets of San Francisco while he holds a "Will Trade Stocks for Food" sign. He is ultimately rescued by Zecco CEO Jeroen Veth.   

It doesn't just end there, though. In an open letter on Thursday, Zecco offered E*Trade customers a $25 restaurant gift certificate for transferring over their accounts. Literally redefining the "free lunch" adage, it's a sound business move for Zecco. The company pays affiliates $35 through ValueClick's Commission Junction for new leads. Setting up folks with a free meal at P.F. Chang's is a relative bargain when it comes to generating a direct lead, with creativity to boot.

Zecco comes full circle
It's been a year since Zecco generated headlines by launching a Web-based platform offering free stock trades. Subsidizing trading costs through a sticky Web 2.0 community site, padded with online advertising, is a compelling model, and I was guardedly optimistic at the time.  

I wrote at the time that it would be tough to attract the large and mid-size accounts that make up the mother's milk of discounting: "With a plethora of time-tested deep discount brokers out there, the difference between nil and $7 may seem to be little more than a rounding error to them. If that's so, they may never come around. That leaves Zecco attracting small -- perhaps novice -- investors."

I guess I was right, because Zecco recently tightened up its model. It is now limiting the number of free monthly stock trades to 10, and only to those with a $2,500 account minimum. It still offers a dirt-cheap $4.50 commission rate on stock trades beyond that, though it's ironic to find that the biggest swinger is one that's been pulling back on its own punches lately.

Clamping down on its own model is obviously not restricting the flow of creative juices at Zecco. The YouTube spoof and the free-meal offer are flashes of personality in a vanilla industry where the differences often boil down to a rate comparison table

So I'll give Zecco some credit. It takes guts to not only whistle but also laugh hysterically as you walk by an open grave.  

Who needs guerrilla marketing, when gorilla marketing will do the trick?


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