A leading French bank, Paribas Banking Group, has taken the plunge into Internet commerce and is reporting that the water's just fine.
Kleline, a subsidiary of Paribas' credit card company, Compagnie Bancaire, opened a "virtual mall" on the Internet on Sept. 25 with 105 merchants. By mid-November, Kleline said, 78,000 customers had used the system.
"Our servers are working nonstop," said Abdallah Hitti, chief executive officer at Kleline. "We get hundreds of orders a day from customers, and four to five merchants a day come on line."
Kleline is working with GC Tech Inc., an Internet payment company that was born two years ago in Paris and recently moved its headquarters to New York City. The company leases its payment system - known as Globe ID - to banks so they can serve as transaction intermediaries.
A few U.S. banks are playing a similar role to Kleline's in electronic commerce, but none have conducted quite so widespread an experiment.
Wells Fargo & Co. and other banks are facilitating Internet transactions through Cybercash Inc.'s electronic wallet, and Mark Twain Bancshares of St. Louis is conducting a pilot with another Internet payment company, Digicash Inc.
Kleline executives describe their venture as international: Though 12,000 French consumers have bought goods through the service, the others had come from such countries as Japan, Brazil, Spain, and Italy.
"We support any currency," Mr. Hitti said. "If you are paying in dollars and the merchant is offering his goods in pesetas, we will do the foreign exchange and show you how much the equivalent price would be in dollars."
The system supports micropayments - low-cost purchases - as well as larger ticket items, Mr. Hitti said. The average transaction price has been the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents.
Air France and the Gymnast's Club (a European health club network) are among the system's leading merchants. About 56% of the on-line merchants sell virtual goods - like software, games and information - and the rest offer services, food, and dry goods.
The system can help Americans read Le Monde and other foreign papers on- line and pay for as much or as little as they want to read, Mr. Hitti said.
GC Tech, which has spent two years building a payments system for Kleline, has also signed an agreement with Banco Bamerindus of Brazil for a similar Internet mall.
"We are hoping to sell this solution to U.S. banks, and they will compete and cooperate" with the others, said Fabrice de Comarmond, executive vice president of GC Tech.