Investing made easy the Charles Schwab way

It is mid-morning at the Park Avenue branch of Charles Schwab and the lunch-hour rush has yet to materialise. Two men - one in a dark suit, another in jeans and a jumper - are eyeing the numbers on an electronic zipper on the office's back wall while they wait for a turn at one of a pair of computer terminals. Another has moved to the trading phone booth to place an order.

Racks of brochures and fliers offer advice on how newcomers can use the Schwab service, -for instance through its own "StreetSmart" software that allows investors to trade via personal computer.

There is the possibility of human contact too: there are three desks with representatives waiting to offer advice to anyone uncertain about how to proceed. In no need of counselling is Peter Warnet, a computer consultant, who was in the neighbourhood and wanted to scan options prices on one of the terminals. He has been using Schwab for five years, and does most of his trading from home on his touch-tone phone.

"I like Schwab because basically it is just very convenient," says Mr Warnet, a living advertisment for the firm.

"I travel all over the country and wherever I go, there is an office. And it's big enough so I know they are going to be reliable".

He is a bit sheepish about how often he visits the offices and makes trades, but he admits it's several times a week.

Christopher Berkland is one of those behind the desks. He confirms the essential difference between Schwab and the traditional brokerage firms: he might give clients guidance on what kind of investment might be wise - mutual funds, perhaps, or straight stock purchases - but he will not make any picks. "I am not going to say you should buy X, Y or Z.".

The easy-to-use formula is indeed tempting. "To place and order please touch two", says the automated voice on the trade phone. Two is duly touched, but then a real voice comes on. Better stop there.

There are 207 other branches like this out there on Main Streets all over the US, making Schwab the biggest discount brokerage firm in the land, with 44 per cent of the market.

With its brand of no-pressure selling and use of cutting-edge technology, the company accumulated $27bn of customer assets last year and took in 800,000 new accounts. Its own share values have soared, rising nearly fivefold in the last four years.

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