The diversity of payments in the US

As a payments geek, I am always curious about payment experiences in various parts of the world. In the last month I had a couple of trips to the US – to New York and to New Orleans – and they just reminded me how diverse the US payments environment is. And I am only talking about the physical POS; I haven't really ordered anything online or in-app while I was there.

First, a few observations around EMV. As I live in the UK, all my cards are Chip and PIN, and the US market has been migrating to EMV for a while now. Of course, the migration can't happen overnight – some merchants have already upgraded their terminals, but many haven't yet. Also, there is no mandate in the US to use offline PIN, so "chip and signature" EMV cards are common amongst the US issuers. As an end-user, I experienced a full gamut of payment scenarios:

  • Majority of merchants would simply take my card, swipe it and give it back to me straight away. Not one of them checked if my card is even signed, let alone if the signatures matched…
  • On a few occassions, I was asked to insert the card into an EMV terminal and enter my PIN. And then we waited. And waited more. And a bit more. I knew EMV transactions take longer in the US, but I didn't realise just how much longer… Not surprisingly, the networks had to do something about it and have announced software updates (e.g. Visa's Quick Chip for EMV and MasterCard's M/Chip Fast) to speed up transaction processing.
  • Not a single eating establishment I visited had a handheld EMV terminal. All of them just took my card and disappeared for a while in the "back of the room" – a practice that sends shivers down the spine for most Europeans 🙂
  • On at least one occassion, I entered the PIN, yet the salesperson was still looking for a signature box on the receipt and wanted me to sign it. I had to explain that PIN replaces the need for signature; of course, these things will disappear once merchants learn more about the EMV cards.

A number of merchants in New Orleans had a Clover POS station. It looked really sleek on retailer desks and transactions seemed fast and easy. I asked a couple of them what they thought of it, and they all said they were very happy with the device, its looks and ease of use.

As a side note, American Express cards seem to be far more widely accepted in the US. In Europe, I got into a habit to double check at new places if they take Amex; in the US, that seems unnecessary.

Of course, it's no longer just cards. US was the first market in the world to see the launch of Apple Pay, Android Pay and a number of other digital wallets. The challenge for many of these wallets is the lack of places where they can be used, as contactless terminals remain relatively rare, albeit growing. However, when they can be used, they work very well. The biggest advantage that I can see as the UK user of Apple Pay is that in the US I can use Apple Pay for any transaction, whatever the amount (as long as my issuer is happy to authorise it). I had no problem paying for a taxi ride from New York's JFK airport to downtown by Apple Pay ($70+ fare with the tip). In the UK, Apple Pay and Android Pay (which has just launched this week) are subject to the same contactless card transaction limits and can only be used for transactions of £30 or less. Again, we expect this to change, as contactless terminals get upgraded.

I was also intrigued to see a PayPal acceptance badge at one of the POS terminals. I asked the cashier if it was a popular payment method amongst their customers. The cashier said that it seemed new to him, and that he personally had yet to see anyone trying to use it. I must admit, I am a fan of the PayPal wallet and use it whenever I can, but nearly all of my transactions are online/ via a mobile app. This time, I only noticed the PayPal sign after I already started paying by card, so can't quite report on the actual experience…

And yet, cash remains hard to beat, with many places only accepting cash. I refrained from visiting any of the dodgier establishments on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, but I didn't even had to in order to experience the power of cash. Most sellers in the French Market clearly prefer cash; getting into (jazz) Preservation Hall is "cash only" at the door, and while not every place has the sign as artistic as the one in the picture below, "cash only, one drink minimum" was a common mantra of many bars with live music.

cash only

Clearly, there is a lot of payments innovation in the US. Various wallets and innovations in POS contribute to the diversity of end user experiences. Such diversity is a good thing and if anything, it will only increase, as customers will have increasingly more ways to pay. And as the migration to EMV continues, the undesireable kind of diversity should reduce as well.

Cardless ATMs and disappointing mobile wallet adoption

While I’m an outspoken advocate of financial services technology, I have been a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to mobile wallets. My skeptical attitude reached an apex when I dropped my smartphone in a glass of merlot several years ago and hasn’t recovered. Had my smartphone been my mobile wallet, embarrassment would have been the least of my problems. Said simply, I just don’t see a compelling use-case for most consumers. Until they arise, I expect industry press to continue to publish stories of lackluster adoption. There have been many. One in particular caught my eye. A recent article in Digital Transactions makes my point in its opening statement, “The introduction of cardless ATMs, which rely on a financial institution’s mobile wallet instead of a debit card to make an ATM withdrawal, could help further the adoption of mobile wallets and mobile payments.” Said another way, if the industry offers consumers enough reasons to configure and use a mobile wallet, adoption may eventually result. This doesn’t sound remotely compelling to me. I can hear the rebuttals now. In defense of Bank of America, BMO Harris, Chase, Peoples Bank and other institutions that have invested in cardless ATM access, physical debit card usage at the ATM could pose an annoyance to mobile wallet adopters, few that they are. With ATM usage roughly twice the customer penetration of mobile banking (below), the last thing banks need is a reason for customers to be dissatisfied with their ATM experience. In my opinion, that’s a more compelling rational for investment than some vein attempt to bolster mobile wallet adoption.

US P12M Channel Usage 2014Source: Consumers and Mobile Financial Services 2015, U.S. Federal Reserve, March 2015

In the article, one banker summed up the challenge associated with mobile cash access this way: “We found the biggest struggle is explaining what it is and the benefit it offers.” If the biggest struggle is communicating a compelling value proposition, then maybe the value proposition isn’t compelling. I don’t think it is – at least not yet. Please don’t misunderstand, I think cardless cash ATM access is a reasonable initiative, but not for the reason stated in the article. I applaud efforts to better integrate retail delivery channels, and ATM cash access is a baby step in that direction. Combine cardless ATM access with other capabilities such as broader P2P payment mechanisms, geo-location and a merchant-funded rewards program, and mobile wallets begin to look compelling. Until then, banks have a bevy of higher priority initiatives to deliver in my opinion. But, even if my bank enabled cardless cash access, I still wouldn’t abandon my physical wallet. In the event of another tragic merlot mishap, traditional ATM cash access might be a real life-saver.

First thoughts on marriage between Visa Inc. and Visa Europe

Today Visa Inc. announced it would be acquiring Visa Europe, subject to regulatory approvals. The press release is here; the executive team also held an investor call earlier today – the recording and the presentation are here. The deal was widely expected, and so should not be a surprise to anyone who follows payments. Still, it poses a number of questions, such as, for example, how effective the combined entity will be in dealing with intricacies of the European market, and whether this would lead to the Europeans calling (again) for a new separate pan-European card scheme. It’s true the European payments market has unique dynamics in terms of regulation and competition, both in cards and in payments more broadly. PSD2 will have profound effects on the existing market players, including Visa. Depending on the final interpretations, some provisions such as scheme and processing separation requirement might introduce undesirable complexities to the integrated Visa. However, I am sure none of this news to Visa’s management and they must have a plan for how to deal with the regional challenges. Visa has committed to maintaining a strong European presence, including an “empowered European leadership team and in-country resources”, “local data center”, and “differentiated country and regional strategies.” Furthermore, the potential synergies are real – a more consistent product set and fewer duplicated efforts should help Visa drive innovation and move to digital on a global basis.​​​ Visa also said it was planning to incur up to $500 million of integration-related costs over the next 4-5 years, most of which would go towards integrating Visa Inc. and Visa Europe systems. In the past, I have seen on occasions Visa Europe appealing to European banks by playing up its ownership structure in Europe and contrasting it to the global approach of MasterCard. This argument is now gone – both networks will be global commercial entities. Would this re-open calls for a pan-European card scheme? I had a look at this issue a few years ago in the Celent report, “In Search of a Third European Card Scheme” and concluded that it was “time to move on.” I still stand by that conclusion today; in my view, it has always been a politically motivated initiative, with no particularly clear business rationale. When “plastic” was the main/ only form of electronic payment, it at least made more sense to consider various options. Now, the world is changing rapidly, as digital payments and real-time networks between bank accounts emerge. Let’s hope that the European banks will find better use for their financial windfall from this transaction than trying to create a new pan-European card network. Given the original “put” option, it was always more a question of “when” rather than “if”. Congratulations to Visa team for deciding to move forward with the deal. P.S. Stay tuned for my reflections on last week’s Money 20/20; I was planning to post those today as well, but Visa’s deal prompted a number of inquiries, so wanted to offer a few thoughts on that first.

UK payments outlook 2024

Our friends at PaymentsUK have released their latest forecasts, the ever excellent UK Payments Market 2015. Whilst we don’t have a copy of the full report (hint, hint…), the press release does give us some interesting insights. For example, payments will hit 44 billion transactions a year by 2024. This is a net growth of 3.4 billion, which hides significant and continued declines in both cash and cheque usage (53% to 33%, and 1.1% to 0.4% respectively). The table provided (and replicated below – the link above has a better quality version) shows that, for consumers at least, cards continue to drive the growth. There are obvious reasons for this: consumers switching from Oyster-like cards to contactless, and indeed, contactless generally, is just one good example.   Number of annual consumer payments made per adult uk pay 3 One thing that really stood out for me is the final line before the total – the “other” category. Celent’s forecasts typically count prepaid and store cards into our debit forecasts. But what is notable is that PayPal is explicitly mentioned… and mobile payments aren’t. At all. We’ve not seen the full report, so it may be explained there, but given what we read in the press, this is hugely surprising. Recent examples include: Actually, it’s not surprising. Firstly, what is a mobile payment? That in itself will cause heated debates! Secondly, for the latter to be true, I ought to know at least someone who is making those mobile payments – or rather, every other person I know! I’m being slightly tongue in cheek – read Zil’s post from a few weeks back about him at least trying. However, I’d still argue that even this wasn’t a true mobile payment – the mobile device is just holding the card credentials. I refer you to my first point! So what are the takeaways? Firstly, the growth may continue – but in reality is perhaps less strong than you may initially think. A 3.4 billion growth in 10 years is actually only a CAGR of c 0.5% a year. Compared to some developed countries (France for example) that’s good, but compared to some developing countries that’s low. Secondly, there may be 101 new ways to pay, but they’re unlikely to make significant inroads, instantly. Current methods are deeply embedded in our every day life. Indeed, many of the “new” methods run on top of the existing rails, and the volume often gets counted as the old method. This doesn’t mean that there are no improvements to be made but that they are just that – tweaks to the existing. Finally, perhaps the phrase of there are lies, damn lies and statistics, ought to be caveated that many of the issues seem to be with PR people and journalists. Many inadvertently misread the numbers, but some of the latest releases underline that we all ought to find the original source rather than necessarily solely relying on what’s being reported.

Practice what you preach?

This is the next – I have a terrible feeling its not the last though – of seeing the cards world through the eyes of a consumer. The story so far is contained in three previous posts, with the last reporting that my card details were skimmed (we assume) in the US. This post however looks at the experience at home. As a consumer, we often get warnings from our banks about phishing attacks – we will never do this, our emails will look like this, etc. Then consider what a daily average inbox looks like – full of identical emails from fraudsters, often better written, and better laid out. Furthermore, banks only focus on emails and outbound calls. I’m possibly wrong, but I’m fairly sure never had the same warnings about text messages, tweets etc. Consider then these channels and how many spam messages you get on a daily basis. (It’s probably ok though, as all the PPI claims I’m told I have should more than compensate me for all the recent accidents I’m alleged to have been in!) Saturday afternoon I received this text: fraud Note that it comes from a mobile number, and texts from my card provider have their details in the text. I deleted it, assuming it was spam, and that if I replied I’d be signed up to some premium rate text service…again. Something made me pause, so I rang my card company, using the number that I already had. And I was right to do so, as it was from them. Thats why I’ve blurred the full number – this is an active line that they are using, but don’t advertise They seemed surprised that I was querying the method, yet when I asked how many people responded to texts, they seemed less certain (to be fair, it was a call center operator!). As a consumer, I appreciate the attempt to make it as seamless and easy as possible. Yet it contradicts the advice we’re given. It would be very simple to text people randomly and ask them personal detail to confirm who they are or to log into a man-in-the-middle website. It feels a little chicken and egg. Consumers need educating. Explaining that the layers of security are providing them protection. At the same time, banks need to think about how consumers will – or should – view their messaging. Given the nature of the message, and the reputational issues, I wonder whether it’s time for the banks collectively to find a solution. Detecting fraud and managing it could be a competitive differentiator – or it could prove far more powerful to do collectively. Across providers, across channels, across products. Best practice across the industry surely has got to benefit everyone long term?  

What do we want? EMV! Where do we want it? Over there!

In my last post, I talked about the experience of using my credit card in the US, and how just inconsistent it feels. Some of it was undoubtedly tied to security – using photo ID or entering zip codes – though I’m far from convinced that they provided any security at all. In some conversations we’ve had, there has been a feeling that US fraud is actually manageable at an industry level – a belief that they are in line or better than in many other countries. Yet the recent figures from Nilson seem to paint a very different picture. Whilst accounting for 21.4% or $6.187 trillion of total volume last year, the US accounted for 48.2% or $7.86 billion of gross losses worldwide on plastic cards. Zil has – and will! – discuss the implementation of EMV at length with anyone, so I won’t discuss that here. What struck me was how ineffective the checks were currently. As a consumer (rather than a payments geek) it struck me:
  • Asking for zip code as authorisation seems pointless – if I’ve stolen a purse or wallet with cards in, I’m likely to have either the zip code already or have enough info to find it within seconds on the internet
  • Asking for a signature, yet not even checking it seems odd. Perhaps I have an honest face or perhaps the risk didn’t warrant the effort
  • Photo ID, at least for non-US, seems pointless. How many people can spot fake ID, or know what a, say, Latvian national ID card looks like?
Another thought that strikes me is that the figures probably hide some other issues too. Traditionally, a third of UK card fraud takes place overseas (in 2014, £150m of £479m). And given that most other countries have EMV, of that, the majority takes place in the US – it has been ranked the country with the highest losses every year for as long as I can find records for. I suspect the figure above does not include this. The volume of fraud then that could be cut by EMV in the US would seem to be even higher. Whilst I know it’s not that simple, the US “accounts” for over 5% of UK card fraud. Full EMV in the US wouldn’t reduced this to zero – but equally, even if it halved it in the top 10 countries which lose most to the US, the reduction in fraud would easily be in excess of £100m a year. Visitors to the US aren’t just wanting the experience to improve, they’re wanting to stop paying for fraud that takes place in the US as well.  

Celent cards research is now published

About a year ago, I decided to embark on a journey of researching vendors and service providers in card management and transaction processing (CMTP). While I have been writing extensively about emerging payments (and will continue to do so), the reality is that many of these payments still rely on cards and the supporting infrastructures. Yet, as the transaction types proliferate, some of those older infrastructures are struggling to cope. If I were at a bank looking to either establish or upgrade our CMTP capabilities, I would want to know: What options do I have? How should I approach the challenge? Who can I turn to for help? The good news is that banks and other institutions seeking help with card management and transaction processing technologies don’t have to face the challenge alone. Depending on their requirements, they can enlist help from packaged software vendors, issuer processors and professional services firms. It has been a massive undertaking, but I am pleased to announce that today Celent published four new reports with details on CMTP vendors. We engaged with over 30 vendors and there is a lot of detail – the reports collectively go to nearly 300 pages. Part I is an overview of the vendor landscape, and Parts II-IV have detailed vendor profiles for 27 companies below: I hope and expect that these reports will be a great resource for everyone in the payments industry, and would like to thank all the firms that participated in this research – their effort was non-trivial. If you are a Celent client, you should be able to access the reports directly. Otherwise, please get in touch with us at

Getting creative about banking alliances

I travel. A lot. And in the spirit of full disclosure, Delta and Starwood are my go-to airline and hotel chain. It helps that they have a mutually reinforcing arrangement whereby I receive miles for my Starwood stays and SPG points for my Delta flights. It just so happens that I’d already settled on these two, so I didn’t have to change my alliances, but on balance, even had I been another hotel patron, this alliance would have weighed heavily when deciding where to lay my head on the road. It helps, too, that Delta status gives me SPG benefits (late checkout, etc.), and vice versa. This is a nice extension beyond the airline code-share alliances of OneWorld, StarAlliance and SkyTeam. Because of my travel I tend to pay attention to emails and offers that many might ignore. The most recent was a note that I recently received from Hertz offering to bump me up in Hertz status if I had a certain level on Delta. I rent cars much less frequently than I fly or stay at hotels, but it’s easy to guess which car rental company I’ll be sure to use in the future. What does this have to do with banking? Credit card companies already partner with airlines (e.g., Delta and AMEX, American and Citi) and banks cooperate with merchants to offer Merchant Funded Rewards, but these are relatively superficial. What might the next, more substantive, level of partnering look like? Are there opportunities for deeper symbiotic relationships with retailers, phone or cable companies, or the like? The details will vary depending on the industry, but as we kick off the new year, it’s an interesting strategic question for banks to consider.

A “Shout Out” to Finextra Future Money

I just spent a couple of fascinating days attending Finextra Future Money in London. The content of the event has already been well covered via a Twitter feed, and Finextra’s own live blogs and a post-event summary. I would strongly encourage to click on those links, as the discussions have been interesting, informative, sometimes provocative and always lively. Rather than trying to summarise all the ideas over the last couple of days, I just wanted to highlight and give thanks to:
  • Everyone at Finextra, but especially Liz Lumley and Nick Hastings, for putting together a great event and for inviting me to moderate a panel on Convergent Commerce.
  • All my panelists – Danielle Anderson (Harris and Hoole), Arun Glendinning (Birdback), Eddie Keal (IBM), Peter Keenan (Zapp) and Paul Thomalla (ACI) – for their insights and making the hour allocated to the panel fly by.
  • Richard Brown (IBM), as I never heard anyone speak so clearly and eloquently about cryptocurrencies and their impact on the future of finance.
  • Dave Birch (Consult Hyperion), who could probably moderate a panel of actuaries and still make it informative AND entertaining (with apologies to any actuaries!) Given that here both his topic (banking apps and APIs) and panelists were genuinely interesting, it is no surprise that it was perhaps the best session over the two days.
  • Bankers, such as Alessandro Hatami (Lloyds), Pol Navarro (Banco Sabadell), Brigid Whoriskey (RBS) and others who bravely presented, engaged and sparred with an audience and sometimes even fellow panelists feisty enough to suggest that “PingIt is nothing more than a PR exercise” or that “Western Union/ SWIFT shouldn’t/ won’t exist in the near future.”
  • Everyone with whom I had the pleasure and privilege to chat during the networking breaks.
I am certainly looking forward to another such event next year.  

Reflections from BAI Payments Connect

Last week I had the pleasure of attending BAI Payments Connect. It is one of those events that has always been on my radar but for one reason or another I never had the opportunity to go. And I was very impressed with it all, particularly with the quality of the conference sessions, which seemed to have been well curated by the organizers. The event was just the right size – not too big to be overwhelming, and not too small. It also had the right balance between “new and shiny”, i.e. things that will matter tomorrow and “down to earth”, i.e. issues that matter today. With four parallel tracks, there was no way to attend all the sessions. As a result, I didn’t attend too many sessions in the fraud or payments operations & check image tracks. So below is definitely not a full summary of the conference, but just a few of my personal key takeaways:
  • Real-time payments are firmly agenda for the US. There is still much debate about what ‘real-time’ really means and what is the best way to achieve it, as indicated by Bob Meara’s blog about the same-day ACH initiative. At the conference the Fed representatives shared the results of the public consultation on payments system improvement. The Fed received about 200 responses. More than three quarters of respondents agreed that ubiquitous participation, confirmation of good funds and both speedy payment settlement and delivery of information would be important. However, many also suggested that near real-time confirmation of good funds and notification are more important than near real-time posting to end-user accounts and interbank settlement. And opinions certainly were divided on how to achieve near real-time delivery of payments. Some advocated limiting any future faster payment options to credit (push) payments to help prevent fraud. The Fed is going to work on defining and prioritizing the US payment system improvement initiatives and expects to communicate these plans in a paper to be published in the second half of 2014.
  • PIN debit networks are continuing to promote PIN-less debit transactions, including at the POS. Visa and MasterCard implemented signature-less transactions at merchants a few years back and raised the limit to $50 in 2012. PIN debit networks responded by also allowing PIN-less routing for transactions under $50. PIN networks tend to have lower interchange rates, but also lower overall fees to stay competitive for the issuers. Nevertheless, it was intriguing to hear one credit union CFO saying that their revenue per transaction declined from 114bps to 94bps. While some of the decline can be attributed to a rising share of PIN-less debit transactions, another reason is PayPal. Having managed to convince a large number of customers to register their bank account as a funding source, PayPal now tops the ACH transactions, above billing, for that particular credit union. Which is related to the next point below…
  • Decoupled debit is not dead. While some decoupled debit initiatives, most notably Tempo, have disappeared off the market, PayPal and ACH cards, such as Target Red, are arguably very similar products. With retailer-led mobile initiatives coming into play, such as MCX, “decoupled debit”, i.e. replacing a card transaction with direct debit on a bank account, may have a meaningful impact on the growth of card transactions.
  • Bitcoin: forget the currency, focus on technology. This is the same message I already highlighted in my recent report on Top Retail Payment Trends, but was reinforced again in a hugely informative and entertaining presentation at the conference. Blockchain, a distributed open public ledger with appropriate cryptography, could be used to prevent “double spending” of any digital asset, not just money.
I also wanted to thank the organizers for the opportunity to share the stage with executives from Bank of America and Cardlytics. I had the privilege to interview them about BankAmeriDeals, Bank of America’s card-linked offers program. There is certainly a lot of interest in card-linked offers in the US banking community. In fact, the audience made my job very easy; after a few introductory questions and comments, they had so many questions that we could have easily spent another hour discussing them. Finally, such events are always a good place to meet up with existing and potential clients and I had a number of very interesting discussions with them. Vegas is a long way from London, but it was a worthwhile trip.