BT banks on e-commerce for spend-thrifts

BT is beefing up its e-commerce capabilities with the launch of a new consumer service for handling low-value transactions traditional credit card companies tend to shun.

BT Argent - to be launched later this month - is aimed at thrifty, cyber-shoppers who want to spend anything from a few pence to £15 on goods, software and information. Goods must display a BT Argent logo.

The UK telco believes that intangible or information-based goods are becoming more important but that conventional payment methods often cost more than the actual product on sale. As a result transactions under £15 pounds are regarded as too fiddley to handle by major credit card companies and banks.

BT aims to fill the gap and charge between 8% to 10% for every online transaction. The service, the company insists, is the result of a "successful pilot" of micropayments services known as BT Array. The pilot dealt with smaller payments of between a few pence and a few pounds.

Users register for the service by forwarding their credit card and email details to BT online. It then handles transactions, aggregates them, and passes the collective charges to Barclays Merchant Services. Customers are charged on their monthly credit card bill but unlike wallet-based micropayment systems, do not have to pay up front.

Mike Elsden, one of BT's e-commerce team, believes the banks are slow to react to a potential money spinner: "Very few organisations offer micropayments services that span the few pence to around £15." But he conceded that the only interest in the pilots had come from companies selling information rather than tangible goods. "Obviously, information over the net is the key driver for micropayments," he said.

The launch of Argent, was announced yesterday at the Electronic Commerce 98 show, London and is part of BT's effort to bolster its e-business offerings. Pilot customer Hemmington Scott, a financial services company, is likely to be one of the first commercial users of Argent. It has taken five hundred customer orders for its company analysis reports.