Procter & Gamble

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is making changes to its direct stock-purchase plan, saying it will eliminate administrative fees and allow investors to buy shares through a direct debit program.

The minimum initial investment will be $250. The sales fee will be $15, or half that if a transaction is requested online, plus 12 cents a share. There is no enrollment fee.

P&G is one of several consumer products companies, including


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, that have direct-purchase plans available to the public.

"The hope is that if a customer owns the stock, then when they walk down the aisle, they'll buy those products," says Charlie Rossi, head of client services at Computershare, a firm that provides share registration, employee equity plans and proxy solicitation services. "They like to call them 'Investomers.'"

A.G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, agrees with that assessment. "In addition to being loyal owners of the company, they are also some of the most loyal consumers of our brands," he said in a prepared statement.

Computershare lists on its Web site companies that engage in some sort of direct-buy program. Using the plans, it's possible for a cost-conscious investor to build a portfolio of blue-chip names without paying high prices.

Fees and commissions in the plans are normally small, but they tend to have limits on the number of shares that can be bought. For example,


( WWY) allows up to $120,000 annually for enrolled participants and only charges a $5 fee for additional purchases of stock.

Campbell Soup

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is even higher, with a cap of $350,000 a year. P&G's new maximum on investment is $6 million for one-time or annual buys.

In the 1960s, direct-purchase plans began as dividend-reinvestment programs sponsored by the companies. Shareholders could choose more stock instead of receiving a cash dividend payment. Those programs evolved into direct-purchase plans.

Then, in 1997, the Security Transfer Association applied to the

Securities and Exchange Commission

to offer the plans, and that's when the popularity exploded.

The plans, sponsored by banks, can't advertise or solicit, but most company Web sites will direct interested parties to them. Computershare, Bank of New York and Mellon are some of the financial companies that handle the transactions.


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is one of the few consumer products companies that doesn't have a direct-purchase plan. Laurie Kiernan, vice president of investor relations, said that's because the vast majority of Playtex's stock is owned by institutional shareholders.

"If you have a large retail following as opposed to institutional, it would make sense," she says. Kiernan adds that she hasn't had much demand for a direct-purchase program and that Playtex employees receive stock as part of their compensation.

The plans aren't without drawbacks, though. Investors can find that it isn't as easy to trade shares as it would be through a regular brokerage account, and they lose control over the price at which the stock is bought or sold, because the plans are designed with long-term investors in mind.