Bottom Line : Milk, Cookies and an Equity Line of Credit

On a recent Friday afternoon, Joseph Karamian buzzes about his 500-square-foot office. In 10 minutes the 31-year-old bank officer schmoozes the wife of a wealthy doctor, speaks Armenian with an elderly man, even pinching his chin and switching to English to call him his "good friend," and instructs one of his employees to give one woman special treatment because the company she works for is a major account holder. Karamian has done all this, and he hasn't even gotten to the fresh produce section.

Karamian, clad in an olive green Armani suit, manages the Wells Fargo Glendale East Colorado branch, which happens to be at the front of a Ralphs supermarket. His branch is one of 6,000 supermarket banking outlets expected to open across the country by the end of the year. Where we used to buy apples, toilet paper and peanut butter, we now can buy auto loans, equity lines, market-rate accounts and more.

Bank officials bill this new development--called retail banking--as convenient for the customer. It's also profitable for both the bank and the supermarket chain.The supermarket gives a bank branch hundreds of opportunities for new business each day; in theory, the bank elevates shoppers' excitement and loyalty to the store. In the first 15 days that Karamian's branch was in operation, his office opened 121 new accounts, processed 235 credit card applications and brought in a million dollars in "new money."

As he speaks, Karamian likes to punch out each clause. There is the corporate motto, the store's clientele (Armenian, Latino, Asian) and his sales method (approach a customer, educate him or her about the services the bank offers and retreat if the customer is not interested.)

Karamian, who is fluent in Spanish as well as Armenian and has worked for Wells Fargo since 1990, starts searching for new clients near the entrance. He spots a family of four picking out Queso Fresco and Ralphs Butter Splitwheat bread.

"Hi, what's your name?" Karamian asks the youngest of the girls. He hands the father a business card and one of the 50-odd Wells Fargo pens he always carries with him. Having learned that Guillermo Cisneros already banks with Wells Fargo, Karamian pitches an equity line, a product the bank wants him to push this week.

"It's money at your disposal should you ever need it," Karamian says. "What if you want to buy your wife a really cool car that someone has to sell quickly because he is leaving town and you don't have the money in savings?"

Cisneros doesn't succumb. The second Wells Fargo PA announcement in 10 minutes drowns out Karamian's polite thank you. Karamian looks down the wine, magazine, pasta and canned food aisles for potential customers, then turns into Aisle Seven, personal care, an area supermarket banking trainers say is off limits should a shopper be looking for "drugs or feminine protection." Unfazed, Karamian heads for a woman in tennis clothes. Before he says anything, she says, "Am I your next victim?"

Pamala Henderson says she'll tolerate his questions if he helps her find some No Doz so she can stay awake to drive to Nevada for the weekend. Karamian makes his equity-line pitch. Henderson is more interested in finding the No Doz. He escorts her to the checkout line, unloads her cart of ice, Red Vines licorice and Arrowhead water and asks her to open a Master Card account since she already has a Visa. Won't she need the credit if she's going to lose money gambling in Las Vegas? She tells him that she's not going to Vegas, nor is she interested in anything he's selling today.

Undaunted, Karamian spies another potential client, and after talking to her, he's sure this time he's going to close the deal. "I have her. She is mine. She is mine."

But as he races through the store, past the end aisle displays, he can't find her.

"Damn. She was a good one, too. Damn!"

He spots the woman about to exit with her bill paid and groceries bagged. Karamian breaks through the checkout line, brushing up against the candy bar and gum display.

Surprised to see Karamian, she realizes that he wants to talk more. She says she'll come back tomorrow.

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