Wells Fargo & Co. is giving 80,000 of its clients, mostly small businesses, another reason to pitch their products over the Internet.
The San Francisco banking company is offering clients of its merchant banking division free domain name registration and a starter Web page. The aim is to entice these merchants to join the 2,000 others nationwide that already rely on the bank to process credit card payments made over the Internet.
The free Web sites and simple templates let merchants post basic information about their businesses but not conduct electronic transactions.
"Our goal would be that as businesses become more successful and do more sales, they become larger customers for us," said Tim Knowlton, the division's Internet product manager.
"Once merchants get accustomed to the Net and have a product (to sell on-line), they would want to move to a more robust Web page," Mr. Knowlton said.
The program, launched in mid-August, has attracted some attention from customers, Mr. Knowlton said. However, it is too early to say how many merchants have signed up, he continued. He said some of the merchants may already have Internet sites, but he did not know how many.
Wells has struck a deal with TABNet, a subsidiary of Verio Inc., Englewood, Colo., to host the Web sites for free. TABNet expects the arrangement will put it in contact with potential paying customers.
Experts differed on the program's potential but said Wells is smart to offer it.
"Wells Fargo is promoting its own payment services by giving merchants the opportunity to establish Web sites," said David Baltaxe, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc.
An Internet presence, however, doesn't always translate into a successful Internet business, he continued.
"There is so much more to a successful on-line business than just having free Web space to set up a store," Mr. Baltaxe said. "Wells Fargo is opening the door for many companies, but whether they will be able to step through the door is a big question mark."
Wells' program is part of a larger effort by banks to ensure themselves a place in the emerging market of electronic commerce, said Erica Rugullies, an analyst at Giga Information Group.
Fleet Financial Group in Boston, for instance, has set up storefronts fleet, a virtual mall in which businesses can post transactional Web sites with the bank's help. Fleet charges a fee for the service.
"Banks are trying to prevent themselves from being shut out," she said. "They don't want to be relegated to being only payment processors."