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Retailers wise up to the web

BANKS and building societies face increasing competition from retailers which see financial services as a profitable sideline.

One of them is Marks & Spencer, which has a large and sophisticated financial services arm providing loans, pensions and investments, as well as the company's charge card.

M&S has revamped its financial services web site, which works with secure documents, using the browser's encryption facilities. The site covers savings and investments, personal loans and a reserve account, which is a flexible loan facility, as well as account card services and life and pensions.

New applications for the M&S charge card can be submitted and existing customers can change their address, their statement date, or opt to pay by direct debit online - although the direct debit form has to be printed out and posted as it requires a signature.

The savings and investment section gives details on the M&S low-cost PEP, including the way it is taxed and how the company works out the value of investments.

For loans, the site provides a calculator to work out monthly payments and secure online application forms for new customers.

The most comprehensive part of the site, though, deals with life and pensions. M&S sells stand-alone pensions, schemes for additional contributions, and serious illness cover. It also sells lump-sum life cover.

Internet users cannot apply online for life or pension products, but can request information and a personal illustration by calling a freephone number.

In addition, M&S provides a useful pension calculator which illustrates the likely monthly and annual pension for a given premium, retirement age and the age of the applicant.

The site provides a walk-though calculator that adds up outgoings and liabilities for a family. Sensibly, it provides some sample figures, such as the monthly cost of running a car or funeral costs, as well as a guide to the state benefits for a widow or widower.

The process might seem a little morbid, but the resulting figures can be quite frightening. For example, a professional person with a young family would need insurance worth several hundred thousand pounds to provide an adequate income after death.

In recent years supermarkets like Safeway, Tesco and Sainsbury's have also introduced financial products such as savings accounts, pensions and insurance. Boots is the latest to introduce a range of insurance products, including medical cover and travel policies.

Tesco's personal finance section consists of a page with some phone numbers to call for more information. Sainsbury's takes a similar approach.

Boots' web site is rather more useful. The company only sells insurance. Its health products include dental and family health insurance, child injury, adult accident and pregnancy. Travel policies include single and annual trip, winter sports cover, and a gap-year policy.

Contacts: Boots, www.boots.co.ok; Marks & Spencer, www.marks-and-spencer.co.uk/financial- services; Sainsbury's, www.jsainsbury. co.uk; Tesco, www.tesco. co.uk