American Express Co. is proving that an electronic billing system can generate traffic at a Web site.
American Express is letting customers review and pay their charge card bills electronically. The company does not disclose numbers, but said 10% to 20% of those enrolled for the service go to it on a daily basis.
Some proponents of Internet bill presentment say American Express' site- www.americanexpress.com-indicates consumers can be attracted directly to a biller's on-line location, bypassing banks or third-party bill consolidators.
Although some utility and telephone companies have begun to do similar things on the World Wide Web, few can match American Express' enrolled customer base on the Internet, said to exceed a million.
Even if individual billers ultimately deliver the bulk of their electronic bills through consolidators-whether they be consumers' financial institutions or a servicer like TransPoint, the collaboration of Microsoft Corp., First Data Corp., and Citicorp-advocates of the "biller-direct" approach say American Express' experience demonstrates the importance of a high-quality Web site.
"The American Express philosophy is to try to offer services through the channel of our customers' choice," said Lynn M. Miller, senior director of interactive strategy, consumer card services group.
Whereas some customers prefer to use the telephone, with automatic voice-response technology, "we believe there is a customer for everything," Ms. Miller said.
The on-line service was launched on the Internet in April 1997 after being available since 1995 on American Online. Offering daily account updates, it encourages cardholders, particularly small-business owners, to be active cash managers.
"That is taking business directly from banks' cash management services," said Richard Crone, vice president of Cybercash Inc. of Reston, Va.
"The big barrier on the Web is trust," said Larry Forman, cash management analyst at Ernst & Young in New York. "I would suspect that American Express passes that test-it is not going to be going away."
American Express has also proven adept at tracking its customers' Web use and cross-marketing to them. The company wants to get past its current average of two products per customer, Ms. Miller said.
"They have woven into the on-line dialogue every product and service," said Mr. Crone.
Some observers are still not convinced that biller-direct presentment will be universally effective.
American Express has the "critical mass to make biller-direct work," said Scott Smith, principal analyst at Current Analysis, a Sterling, Va., research firm. This might be "duplicated by large national brands like Macy's or Citibank or MBNA."