American Express Co. for the first time is throwing its weight into an on-line shopping promotion.

The financial services giant is sponsoring EZSpree, a contest designed to entice people to buy products over the Internet. Entrants will have the chance to win a $100,000 on-line shopping spree.

Created by the Web marketing firm Yoyodyne Entertainment, the promotion aims to capitalize on holiday shopping volume. At least 140 merchants, including Dell Computer Corp. and Nobody Beats the Wiz, are participating in the promotion that runs through Jan. 31.

Internet surfers can register for the contest on the EZSpree Web site, which provides links to the home pages of participating merchants.

Consumers can buy from the merchants' Web sites using any credit card, but American Express cardmembers get special discounts. The electronic commerce system relies on the Secure Sockets Layer protocol to safeguard transaction data.

American Express, which sells its own products on its home page, decided to back EZSpree to promote electronic commerce in general, said Belinda Lang, the New York company's consumer card marketing vice president.

"We want to enable our customers to see how easy and convenient it is to do shopping on-line," Ms. Lang said.

Promotions are seen as increasingly vital because many Internet shopping malls are virtually empty. One of them-the World Avenue shopping site run by International Business Machines Corp.-closed over the summer after 10 months due to lack of interest.

Nonetheless, observers are bullish about this new mode of shopping.

John Gantz, senior vice president for International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., said electronic commerce revenue will surge to $220 billion in 2001 from $11 billion in 1997.

Most of those sales, however, will come from business-to-business rather than consumer-initiated transactions, he said.

Jupiter Communications, a New York-based research firm that follows consumer electronic commerce, expects consumer on-line shopping revenues to reach $24.5 billion in 2001 from $2.6 billion this year.

"The American Express name will draw people" to EZSpree and improve its chances of success, Mr. Gantz said.

But analysts said American Express could publicize the site more aggressively. Though it is advertising the contest on its home page, American Express is neither mailing marketing material to members nor creating print advertisements.

Yoyodyne executives said on-line advertising is most effective for promoting Web sites.

"We find that big prizes and cool banner (ads) work," said Jerry Shereshewsky, vice president of marketing at Yoyodyne, based in Irvington, N.Y. "We are confident in their ability to snag folks."

Once people register for the sweepstakes, they receive E-mail notices about special sales and promotions at EZSpree stores.

Many EZSpree merchants have their own Web sites and expect the promotion to bring more customers to their home pages.

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