By acquiring its main rival in the consumer online credit market, eBay Inc. would become a more significant player in a niche it has been pursuing since last year with little success.
The San Jose company said Monday that it would incorporate Bill Me Later Inc. into its PayPal Inc., and that it eventually plans to shutter Pay Later, a service comparable to Bill Me Later's but much less successful.
The strategy mirrors eBay's 2002 decision to buy PayPal and close its own person-to-person payment service.
Bill Me Later "is a better product than what we have as Pay Later," Scott Thompson, PayPal's president, said in an interview Monday. "So while we have some uptake, it's just not to the same level as Bill Me Later has achieved in the market."
This was the same logic eBay used in the PayPal acquisition, he said. At that time eBay was pushing its Billpoint payment service "as a competitive service to PayPal," but Meg Whitman, eBay's chief executive at the time, decided to purchase PayPal. "It was a fundamentally better product and a better service at the time. In a lot of ways, we look at this acquisition and Pay Later in the same light."
On Monday eBay said it would buy Bill Me Later for about $820 million in cash plus $125 million of outstanding options. Gary Marino, the Timonium, Md., company's CEO, would continue to run the business.
Bill Me Later has relationships with several major online merchants — a market where PayPal has been trying to expand. eBay's payment service is offered by many small merchants — a market Bill Me Later has lacked the resources to tackle, according to Bruce Cundiff, a director of payments research and consulting for Javelin Strategy and Research of Pleasanton, Calif.
After the purchase, eBay would have a diverse customer base offering credit to a much wider spectrum of online shoppers, Mr. Cundiff said.
"Bill Me Later is the first to admit this: They don't have the bandwidth to go after that merchant segment, so it's really opening up an opportunity for them" to be a part of PayPal, he said.
PayPal has been trying to persuade large online retailers to offer its services for several years. Apple Inc. has offered its standard consumer payment service since 2004, and Dell Inc. has done so since 2005. Last week PayPal announced that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has begun accepting PayPal online; Wal-Mart has been a Bill Me Later customer since 2005.
"We've really pushed in the last two and a half years to go up market in terms of our merchant services business," Mr. Thompson said, and buying Bill Me Later would further expand its roster of big-name online merchants.
Bill Me Later offers credit for individual purchases made at online retailers. Its systems can determine whether to extend credit almost instantly, using only the buyer's birth date, the last four digits of the buyer's Social Security number, and the shipping information provided to the merchant.
The credit is offered by CIT Group Inc.'s CIT Bank of Salt Lake City, and First Data Corp. handles the billing. Bill Me Later is accepted at many large retailers, such as Toys 'R' Us Inc. of Wayne, N.J., and Amazon.com Inc. of Seattle, which currently owns a minority stake in Bill Me Later.
Mr. Marino said eBay would treat Amazon.com as any other Bill Me Later shareholder. "The whole company was purchased, and all the assets, so they, like all shareholders, will share in the proceeds."
Amazon is expected to continue offering the payment service, he said. "Our relationship with them is still good."
(Patty Smith, Amazon's director of corporate communications, said it does not discuss other companies' business strategies or its own financial relationships, and it would not speculate on whether the deal would affect the use of Bill Me Later's service.)
Mr. Thompson said that by the second half of next year, PayPal hopes to have Bill Me Later integrated with its application programming interface, which is used by large businesses. By that time Bill Me Later should also be integrated in the hosted application offered to small merchants.
Bill Me Later eventually would be integrated with eBay as a payment option for its online auctions, but Mr. Thompson described that as a second phase of the integration. PayPal's current focus with the service is merchant Web sites, he said.
The long-term goal is for Bill Me Later to replace Pay Later, which is funded through General Electric Co.'s consumer finance unit, Mr. Thompson said. "In the near term, we don't have any plans to change the relationship that we have with GE, and we don't have any plans to take Pay Later down."
PayPal first would have close the Bill Me Later purchase, which it expects to do this quarter, and begin integrating the technology into its own systems.
"We will announce what that road map is after the first of the year in terms of when we expect to accomplish those things and when you could see us sunsetting the Pay Later product," Mr. Thompson said.
In the past Bill Me Later has expressed interest in making its service available at merchant locations. Mr. Marino said the eBay acquisition would give it the means to pursue this, though Mr. Thompson said PayPal has no plans offer its services at the point of sale, other than through the payment cards it already offers.
The credit crisis would seem to strain a company that offers only a credit product, but Mr. Marino said Bill Me Later's customer base has been less affected than most people, since it serves "superprime" borrowers, though it has not been completely unscathed.
"We're always thoughtful about credit and the trends in the marketplace, so we recognize that there's stress out there, and so our credit criteria reflects all that," he said.
Also Monday, eBay announced that it was buying Den Bla Avis AS and BilBasen ApS, two Danish classified ad providers, and that it would reduce 10% of its head count. Mr. Thompson said the reductions will affect PayPal, though he would not give further details. He also said the Bill Me Later purchase is separate from this initiative.
Mr. Cundiff said online merchants are interested in offering alternatives to payment cards for purchases, though the demands of integrating new systems has forced them to move slowly. Now that PayPal plans to put Bill Me Later on its own platform, "merchants don't necessarily have to make that choice anymore."
Pay Later has not been very successful, he said, though it was one of the few competitors to Bill Me Later for online credit services, and PayPal's other services have been competing with Bill Me Later's for several years for acceptance at online merchants.
Mr. Cundiff said PayPal is being rightfully cautious about shutting down Pay Later, since GE is an important partner for eBay.
One way to maintain that relationship would be to have GE conwork alongside CIT in extending credit to Bill Me Later's customers.
"That makes sense if you can spread the risk" over a number of financial institutions, he said.