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Virgin Group goes for e-commerce

Entrepreneur Richard Branson also plans to drop the monthly subscription fee from his UK-based Internet access business, Virgin Net.

Richard Branson's Virgin Group, whose far-flung empire includes airlines, music, hotels, movie theaters, and trains, is taking the e-commerce plunge.

The British entrepreneur also plans to drop the monthly subscription fee from his UK-based Internet access business, Virgin Net, and--in his typically flamboyant fashion--is challenging America Online in the process.

On the e-commerce front, Branson plans to "expand his retailing business on the Internet with a 50 million pound [about $81 million] cash injection across the whole group this year," according to a statement posted today on Virgin's Web site.

"Virtually every part of the empire will have some form of e-commerce facility by the end of 1999, from the largest company, Virgin Atlantic, to one of the smallest, Virgin Bride," the statement said. "Consumers will be able to book holidays, organize their finances, purchase cinema tickets and plan a wedding through the Virgin group of companies."

Virgin Megastore is expected to relaunch in the spring, providing online music sales.

Virgin also said it will drop its monthly subscription fee for Internet access via its Virgin Net business. Instead, users will pay a local call rate for the time they are online. Users will still have access to Virgin Net content, including a new personal finance channel, five individual e-mail addresses, filtering software and 10Mb of Web space. Virgin Net customers will pay for customer support, however.

"I read this morning that Frank Keeling, marketing director of AOL, believes that people will always be willing to pay to look at interesting and relevant content," Branson said on the Web site. "We are offering it free to the customer, along with free access. Other free Internet services do not offer anything like this quality of content."

Virgin Group, which is privately held, is among a growing number of retail giants that is jumping on the Web to boost profits.