By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor BANK of the Bahamas International is eyeing an initial client base of "several hundred" Bahamian merchants for the planned launch of its e-commerce platform in six months' time, telling Tribune Business yesterday that the private sector was "crying out" for such online services. Paul McWeeney, the BISX-listed institution's managing director, said the facility - part of its expanded electronic banking platform - would enable Bahamian retailers and other companies to establish online merchant accounts and receive payment for goods sold via the Internet. Explaining that the bank's e-commerce platform would "add value" to the Bahamian retail industry and enable it to compete on a 'level playing field' with merchants in other countries, Mr McWeeney acknowledged that the banking sector's failure to provide such a feature to-date had held back this nation's private sector. "We're still in a testing phase. We're hoping we can launch it in six months' time," Mr McWeeney told Tribune Business of Bank of the Bahamas International's e-commerce platform. "We will offer online accounts for our customers. Instead of going through Pay Pal, Bahamian merchants will be able to establish online merchant accounts, and be able to make and receive payments through their own portal." The online merchant banking platform is solely Bank of the Bahamas International's, and is not a venture by the Clearing Banks Association (CBA), as was incorrectly reported by another newspaper yesterday. Mr McWeeney acknowledged that, currently, while Bahamian companies could market and sell products via the Internet, they could not receive payment for them online. While some were using PayPal to facilitate online payments, this was "not practical" as it was designed for US merchants only. As a result, any Bahamian company whose goods were bought/sold over the Internet was still reliant on traditional forms of payment, such as cash, cheques and wire transfers. This negates the advantages of e-commerce, as it forces vendors to hold on to goods for days until payment is received. "It's terribly inefficient right now," Mr McWeeney told Tribune Business. "It slows the whole process down. The market is crying out for it [an online merchant banking/account platform]." Bank of the Bahamas International's proposed platform, Mr McWeeney said, would ensure online transactions were completed "in a timely fashion", with "flexible and convenient" forms of payment offered. Conceding that demand from the Bahamian business community for online e-commerce platforms was "significant", the Bank of the Bahamas International chief added: "We get calls all the time. From time-to-time, there are outbursts by the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce. "We feel that it's a good opportunity to expand that whole service into helping add value to the retail sector in the Bahamas. Certainly, all of our existing merchants, those non-restaurant types of businesses, want to be part of that, and we have several hundred clients in that [retail] area right now. We're testing it with three of those merchants in the testing phase." Mr McWeeney told Tribune Business that the online merchant account plan was part of Bank of the Bahamas International's overall electronic banking platform expansion, and therefore no additional investment was required by the bank as this was already built-in. Still, setting up online accounts for Bahamian merchants was "not as easy as people think. Setting up the infrastructure is one thing," Mr McWeeney said, "but because e-commerce merchant accounts are high risk, the banks have to safeguard themselves by putting substantial steps in place to mitigate against charge back. That's a big thing. "Many online merchant accounts do not have physical stores. We have to ensure charge back measures are properly mitigated." With online purchases growing as rapidly as those in shopping malls in major developed countries, Mr McWeeney acknowledged that e-commerce was part of the commercial arena across the world.