By JUDITH SCHOOLMAN

Reuters

NEW YORK -- Long-distance telephone carrier MCI Communications Corp. said Monday it will offer access to on-line shopping through the Internet, joining the growing number of shopping services in cyberspace.

MCI, which said it already carries 40 percent of network traffic on the Internet, said that 14 businesses were setting up on-line catalog shopping services on MarketplaceMCI, which will be open to all users of the Internet computer network for browsing and purchases.

``From the day we announced MarketplaceMCI, small and large businesses have been beating down our doors to open their doors on the Internet,'' said Scott Ross, president of MCI Business Markets.

Among the businesses offering on-line services will be Dun & Bradstreet Corp., Hammacher Schlemmer & Co., OfficeMax Inc., Intercontinental Florist, and QUALCOMM Inc.

A second group of merchants and services will be available later this month, including Aetna Life and Casualty Co., Sara Lee Corp.'s L'eggs and Superior Coffee, Tiger Direct software and Timberland Co. outdoor apparel.

MCI's Marketplace is part of the networkMCI Business software package for desktop computers, which includes fax, electronic mail, desktop video conferencing, document sharing and easy access to the Internet computer network.

InternetMCI, a software package that eases Internet access, was introduced in September and came on line Monday, an MCI spokesman said from Atlanta.

While MCI would not disclose the number of users of its on-line software, Ross said that for MarketplaceMCI to grow, the deomographics of Internet users has to change.

Currently, most Internet users are men aged 25 to 35 ``but we believe this is going to change in six to nine months,'' he said. The expected introduction of Microsoft's Windows `95 software, which will make Internet access ``open to the those not technically savvy, will open the market to 45 to 50 million additional users,'' Ross said.

On-line shopping has been touted as the commerce of the future with some people purchasing family groceries, clothing, wine, airline tickets and life insurance through their personal computers.

While it is unlikely that computer shopping will take the place of department stores and malls, on-line shopping does have its followers.

Currently, there are about 100 electronic malls, or on-line groupings of stores, catalogs or services, on the Internet.

The Branch Mall, one of the Internet's largest groupings, has nearly 100 stores. Shopping 2000, available on CD-ROM, has about 40 providers with goods from lingerie to music.

On-line shoppers spent about $200 million last year, according to Forrester Research, compared with an estimated $53 billion in catalog sales. By 1999, on-line sales are expected to reach about $5 billion.

Currently, on-line shopping may have the cachet of being new, but it is often far from user-friendly.

While a catalog company's telephone operator can advise on size, for example, on-line you're on your own. Often the quality of the computer graphics pales in comparison with glossy catalog photographs.

Complaints of limited offerings, in comparison with catalogs, and concern for credit card security have kept some otherwise interested users away.

Addressing this, MCI said that through use of encryption technology users can keep on-line credit card transactions secure.

The InternetMCI software, which leads to the on-line shopping world, is free for networkMCI Business users and sold for $39.95 to others. There are monthly and hourly usage fees but MCI would not disclose the average cost per user.

MCI said any Internet browser software can be used to access MCI's Home Page at ``www.internetMCI.com''. MarketplaceMCI can be accessed by using the address ''marketplace.internetMCI.com/marketplace''.

However, MCI said that to ensure secure transactions when using credit cards, users must have InternetMCI, Netscape or any other software that is compatible with Netscape's encryption software.

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