Two nonbank heavyweights have beaten banks to the punch in online bill presentment and payment.
In separate but concurrent moves, American Express Co. and GE Capital this month introduced services that let customers view and pay all their bills online. This makes them the first major financial institutions to offer these capabilities under their own brands.
Both have signed up with Princeton, N.J.-based Paytrust Inc., which will make digital scans of all customer bills that are not available online.
Two-year-old Paytrust is one of a few companies - known as scanners - that let people switch completely to paperless bill payment and presentment. When people sign up with Paytrust, they arrange with billers to have all invoices sent directly to the New Jersey company, either electronically or on paper. Paytrust notifies customers by e-mail when their bills arrive so that the person can log on to the service and view and pay bills.
GE Capital and American Express are both investors in Paytrust, and they have just begun offering its service to their customers under their mighty brand names.
"Scan-and-pay services, in combination with electronic billing methods, offer the most complete solution at this time," a GE spokeswoman said.
American Express, which already lets customers pay their card bills online, sees the new service as "a natural next step," a spokeswoman said. The company says 2.2 million of its customers either check their accounts or pay their card bills online and many have asked to pay all their bills online through the Amex Web site.
The service Amex has set up with Paytrust, called the Bill Center, is free for the first three months, then costs $7.95 a month for up to 30 transactions. After 30, transactions cost 50 cents each.
GE Capital says its service is part of a campaign to make every part of the company Internet-enabled. "Based on market research that we have seen, consumers are asking for this service," a spokeswoman said.
In a separate deal, GE Capital in Stamford, Conn., has signed an agreement with Compubank, an Internet bank, to offer banking products through the GE Web site. The spokeswoman declined to say how many online banking customers GE has.
Its bill presentment and payment service, available through the GE Financial Network Web site, is free for the first three months, then costs $8.95 a month for up to 25 transactions. Additional transactions cost 50 cents each.
Many banks have been skeptical of companies like Paytrust, saying that the business model is good for the short term but too labor-intensive and expensive for the long term. Because of all the work involved in scanning in bills, Paytrust charges $8.95 a month for its own service, and industry experts are skeptical that people will be willing to pay that much.
Edward G. McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Paytrust, said the monthly fee is worth it because it is "based on taking something you hate to do in life and getting rid of it. The most reviled regularly recurring task is paying bills; it just edges out grocery shopping."
Mr. McLaughlin added: "What we have done is solved the fundamental consumer problem with getting all of your bills online. Consumers don't need to worry if their billers offer electronic bills or not."
Ameritrade Holdings Corp. also offers Paytrust's service through its online subsidiary, OnMoney.com.
Octavio Marenzi, managing director of Celent Communications, said the GE Capital and American Express contracts are impressive endorsements of Paytrust and its scanning strategy, as well as a possible threat to banks.
"The customers' primary banks get pushed into the background because it is the company that provides the bill payment and presentment services that will come to the consumer's mind first," he said.
Analysts say the entry of these two major financial companies into bill payment and presentment may spur dawdling banks into action. America Online Inc. has announced plans to offer online bill presentment and payment this year through Intuit Inc., and Yahoo Inc. began offering online bill payment in September through CheckFree Holdings Corp.; it later added a presentment service.
"Unfortunately it has been fear instead of greed that has been motivating the banks, and this might give them the kick they need to be more aggressive," said Gary R. Craft, an electronic commerce analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. "Intelligent first-movers typically become dominant players, and this will incrementally be a threat to banks."