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Amex takes e-commerce plunge

American Express licenses e-commerce software from Mercantec to resell the package to Web merchants.

American Express, off to a late start in promoting use of its charge card for Internet commerce, has licensed e-commerce software from Mercantec and will resell it to Internet merchants.

American Express has integrated its payment software with Mercantec?s SoftCart storefront software, creating a single-source package for adding commerce to new or existing Web sites.

"We have been endorsing e-commerce or shopping online for some time," said John Galifi, director of e-commerce for American Express' merchant unit. "It's not only a viable and secure mode for business, but now we're going one step further by putting our brand on a solution."

But the first version of the American Express SoftCart software does not support the new Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) protocol for secure online charge card purchases. American Express was an early supporter of the SET standard, created by Visa, Mastercard, and their technology partners.

Instead, the Amex system will use the older Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol, which is how virtually all credit card purchases on the Net are secured today. Future versions will support SET, the companies said.

"We're standing behind both SET and SSL," said Galifi of American Express. "One of our goals is not to have merchants choose how to process transactions. As soon as we are comfortable with SET in fully implementable mode for both card members and merchants, we will have it."

American Express has built its own Internet "gateways" to accept both SET and SSL charges, and it tested the SET gateway in June in one of the earlier U.S. tests of the new protocol, with Walmart.

Buying the American Express/Mercantec software will give merchants one advantage: direct connection to the American Express gateway, which will process credit card transactions immediately and without additional fees that a third-party processor might add. However, American Express charges to merchants are generally higher than Visa or Mastercard's.

The American Express-Mercantec software also will support purchases made with bank cards like Mastercard or Visa, broadening the package's appeal to Internet merchants.

Chris Stevens, an e-commerce analyst at the Aberdeen Group, said the new offering will appeal to merchants because of its low price and easy-to-use tools.

Mercantec claims to have sold 3,000 licenses to its SoftCart software, which would make it one of the largest e-commerce software vendors in unit sales. The American Express deal will deliver a real boost to Mercantec, said company president Andrew Parker.

"American Express gives us access to every retailer in the country," said Parker, who calls the Internet "an evolutionary environment for commerce, not a revolutionary one."

Mercantec's SoftCart software does not have a payment module built in, but it has built its software with open interfaces that allow merchants to plug in different modules for payment and for linking to existing back-end systems for ordering, shipping, accounting, and so on.

American Express? SoftCart package costs $1,800, although a monthly license fee is also available. The product is currently available on a limited basis with full distribution due in early 1998.