Money managers once believed men would make all the investment decisions for America's households. For decades, their sales pitches and marketing efforts were targeted at men.
That's changing."If you continue to serve only the client base you have - and in Smith Barney's case that was an aging male clientele - you'll miss out on the growth opportunity in the market," said Mindy Ross, director of target marketing initiatives at Travelers Group Inc.'s Smith Barney. "And that opportunity in the market is clearly women."
Merrill Lynch & Co. started wooing female customers in the 1970s, and today, more than 40 percent of its clients are women. Smith Barney and OppenheimerFunds Inc. have just begun to tap the market. PaineWebber Group Inc., Scudder Stevens & Clark Inc. and a few others also are developing marketing strategies.
"Women not only buy the things that come into the household, but they pay the bills," said Gail Wickes, a senior vice president at PaineWebber in New Jersey.
But Wickes pointed out that men may be more likely to handle investing. Studies bear her out; the Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund industry trade group, shows that only about 32 percent of women make household investment decisions by themselves, compared to 50 percent of the men surveyed.
Still, in 55 percent of homes, women bring in at least half the income. The U.S. Department of Labor said 47 percent of Americans with assets of $500,000 or more are women.
Women accounted for 60 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce from 1984 to 1994, Labor Department figures show, and they are getting better jobs. Women hold 48 percent of U.S. professional jobs now, up from 42 percent in 1984.
Financial services firms haven't been oblivious to these changes. They've been studying, surveying and resurveying the growing women's market for a decade, occasionally aiming investment brochures, advertisements and seminars at women.
Scudder's new television ads depict single mothers and other women taking the reins of their portfolios. Print ads and promotional materials conveying similar themes will be out next year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women in the financial community have played leading roles as Wall Street steps up its efforts to attract female clients.
After teaching at Harvard University and serving as president of Bennington College, Wickes switched professions. Sixteen years ago, as a fledgling broker in Oklahoma, she sought female clients to grow her business; she's now doing the same for Paine-Webber.
"I think what's happening is not that financial service companies are discovering women, but the companies on the corporate level are discovering them. That includes PaineWebber," Wickes said.
Merrill Lynch's Ann Benson got her start in 1966 fielding questions in a Merrill information kiosk in Grand Central Station. When Merrill sent her on a promotional tour in 1975, women were asking the most questions.
They were "smart women with great jobs, who were making money and had discretionary funds," Benson said. "There was an obvious need." She persuaded some Manhattan department stores to offer seminars and, since Merrill had no budget for it, advertise them to women.
In 1978, Merrill gave her a budget, and she started crisscrossing the U.S. doing seminars. Now, as a consultant to Merrill, Benson hosts about 35 seminars a year; each draws about 250 women.
The boom in mutual funds, about five years ago, awakened the industry to the potential women represented. As funds proliferated, firms carved marketing niches and launched multi-million dollar advertising campaigns.
"The maturing of any market brings microsegmentation," said John Shields, a consultant with Cerulli Associates in Boston. "People are looking for ways to take - instead of a shotgun approach - a rifle-shot approach."
Louis Harvey, president of Dalbar Inc., a research company in Boston, warns that companies will abandon their efforts if they produce few results.
But polls and marketing surveys show women investors do want help. They desire educational materials that will tell them about investing, and they want patient explanations from financial advisers, the marketers say.
"Learning how to be smarter investors is a priority with women," said Cathleen Meere, an Opp-enheimerFunds spokeswoman. "The goal is not to get them into Oppenheimer funds, it's to educate women. Of course, we hope they do buy an Oppenheimer fund when they choose to buy."