In yet another example of American Express' reaching for customers outside its card base, the company is testing a bill-payment service that reduces the number of checks people must write each month.
This latest initiative, a non-card-related bill-payment service called One Check, is being tested in Phoenix with about 375 residents.
The service lets consumers pay for their water, gas, electricity, long-distance and local phone service, and television cable bills with one personal check.
The service's primary benefit is convenience, said spokeswoman Maureen Bailey.
"The average household writes about five checks a month," she said, "and One Check provides one consolidated statement that allows people to pay all their bills at once."
American Express plans to set the fee for the service at less than it would cost for a person to write and mail several checks.
A product development team in the Travel Related Services division, which also handles American Express' card products, is in charge of guiding One Check.
In October, American Express announced plans to cut its staff by as many as 6,000 people, but Ms. Bailey said that it is too early, given the pretest status of the product, to talk about staffing requirements.
"American Express is not cutting back in one place and building up in another," she said.
Nevertheless, full-scale tests will be launched in January in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh; 10,000 people in each city will be sent mail offers.
Initially, American Express will offer consumers the option of paying for One Check with a personal check or by direct debit of a demand deposit account.
"In the future, we will be looking at linking One Check to our other American Express products," said Richard Pickering, a vice president in the consumer card group who is spearheading One Check.
Consumers who sign up for One Check will not be buying convenience at the cost of less information from their service providers. They will get full disclosure regarding their accounts.
American Express acknowledges that the service is not appealing to all budgets. because it requires a single large payment instead of smaller checks spread out over time.
The New York financial services company is verifying the creditworthiness of customers who sign up for One Check. American Express will examine whether the customers have paid their bills on time to the participaring service providers.
Addressing the fact that this product is a departure from American Express' traditional stable of card products, Mr. Picketing said, "We are essentially a bill-payment provider, and we are leveraging that expertise with this program."
Anne M. Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp. in Atlanta, views the program as a "gateway service that enables American Express to be in the bill-payment business."
Ms. Moore also said One Check gives American Express an opportunity to build relationships with a group of consumers it hasn't served in the past.