Apple Pay: A few surprises – or are they really surprises?

Apple Pay continues to provide excitement to many in the industry who are looking for signals indicating that Apple Pay is either doomed or is becoming a mass-scale success. In reality, it’s neither at the moment – it’s still early days. A few recent stories also caught my eye. At first glance, they seemed a little surprising, although I don’t think they should be. The first was the InfoScout blog discussing their research that 90.9% of iPhone 6/ 6+ users have never tried Apple Pay, and only 4.6% of those who could use Apple Pay during Black Friday, actually did, which has prompted some commentators to announce the death of Apple Pay. Considering that smooth consumer payment experience is one of the major Apple Pay’s attractions, low usage might appear a little surprising. However, if you think about the shortage of merchant locations, lack of awareness which merchants would accept the transactions, general stress of shopping on Black Friday and the fact that we are talking here about “normal” consumers (albeit early iPhone 6 adopters), not payment geeks, it starts to make more sense. Various other surveys found that consumers who have used Apple Pay, compared it highly favourably to using a traditional plastic card. And according to the same InfoScout blog, of those who have not used Apple Pay, 31% said they didn’t know if the store accepted it and 25% said they simply forgot – factors that will fall away over time with more training, communication and experience. Bank of America recently said that 800,000 of its customers have signed up with a total of 1.1 million accounts. The second was a recent story in Digital Transactions that there are now 54 banks and credit unions supporting Apple Pay. Only 54? Didn’t the announcement from Apple in October state that it signed up another 500 FIs in addition to its launch partners? Well, there is clearly a difference between signing the paper and actually supporting customers and their cards from technical and operational perspective. Still, it is encouraging to see that the number of institutions continues to grow and includes issuers across the spectrum, from the largest banks to small(-ish) credit unions. My final surprise was data from research that ACI Worldwide conducted at a recent National Retail Federation (NRF) show. ACI surveyed 200 participants, 85% of whom were based in the US and over half represented merchants. 47% of respondents expected that Apple Pay would “win the mobile wallet war” with Google and PayPal being other main contenders; only 6% opted for MCX. In our last year’s report assessing Apple Pay’s prospects, we predicted that the US merchants would be the most likely major barrier for Apple Pay’s success. However, if merchants start to believe in Apple Pay, they might start switching on the contactless capability on the new terminals they are installing as part of EMV migration. And if that happens, then mobile payments might arrive sooner than even the most optimistic of us expected.

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.

Top Five Themes at Money2020

I am finally starting to catch up on things back after the intense week at Money2020. Congratulations to the Money2020 team for pulling off another impressive event! With 4,000 people attending, the energy and excitement was palpable. With opportunities to network and so many sessions going in parallel, I only got a chance to attend a fraction of what was on offer. Having had a bit of time to reflect, here are my personal top 5 takeaways: 1. Digital wallets are starting to come of age. With interesting announcements from PayPal, Isis and a number of other players, it is clear that now everyone agrees that it’s not about the underlying technology (e.g. NFC vs QR codes), but about customer and merchant adoption, which requires clear benefits, simplicity, and ubiquity. My view is that of the leading contenders (PayPal, Isis, Google, scheme wallets), PayPal is showing the most promise today. It’s concept of checking-in is simple to understand, the check-out does not depend on a specific technology (the code can be scanned or entered) and last year’s deal with Discover gives PayPal ubiquity, at least in the US. 2. MCX is more real than many people think. The panel of merchants representing the MCX initiative received a mixed reception from the attendees. However, they did say more than they have ever done in the past and where they didn’t say too much, it was possible “to read between the lines.” Two of the most common questions to MCX are 1) how will they attract consumers? and 2) are they building a new payments network? For #1, MCX is looking to leverage the relationships they already have with millions of customers through their loyalty programs and private label cards. And if the offer is compelling, who is to say the customer won’t be tempted to download the app and give it a try? Those same private label cards will also be a starting point as a funding source, although MCX are also believed to be in discussions with banks to connect directly to the bank accounts, and through FIS they have a technology partner capable of helping them navigate the technical complexities. As Wal-Mart representative concluded, “do not confuse the lack of announcements [from MCX] with a lack of progress.” 3. Tokenization is going to be a big topic over the coming years. On October 1, Visa, MasterCard and American Express introduced “a proposed framework for a new global standard to enhance the security of digital payments and simplify the purchasing experience when shopping on a mobile phone, tablet, personal computer or other smart device.” A card number would be replaced by a token, which would be used instead for shopping online or on a mobile. The US banks have already started a similar effort via The Clearing House, and in my view, the announcement from the three networks is a direct response to those efforts and an attempt to influence the developments. Despite multiple panel discussions at Money2020, not many details are available at this stage how all this will work, but it’s obvious that it is a trend to watch. 4. Card-linked offers remain exciting while entering the next stage of development. Events like Money2020 are great at bringing the entire ecosystem together: issuers, payment providers, merchants, investors, analysts and others. Card-linked offers and transaction-driven marketing continue to excite different parties with their promise and the event had a number of intelligent panel discussions, acknowledging the fact that no one party has full access to the necessary data and recognizing the need to collaborate creatively while respecting customer privacy. I had the privilege of moderating one such panel discussion among the representatives from Affinity Solutions, Home Depot, Speedeon and Vantiv – thank you to all my panelists and to the organizers for giving us the opportunity. As a further sign of maturity, Cardlinx Association announced at Money2020 brings together companies such as Microsoft, Bank of America, Discover, Facebook and First Data in addition to most of the main platform players to tackle industry-wide issues such as stacked offers (e.g. multiple offers presented through different channels), product returns and others. 5. The emphasis in ‘m-POS’ is shifting from ‘m-‘ to ‘POS.’ Square and others have pioneered the m-POS concept where a mobile device and a ‘dongle’ are acting as a payment terminal to accept the card. However, the development of digital technologies has paved the way for providers of new breed of POS systems, which are aimed at replacing traditional stationary cash registers/ POS systems. The new systems, such as Clover announced by First Data at Money2020, are cloud-based open platforms enabling to tap into the developer community for a wide range of apps that can help merchants manage their inventory, reconcile books or engage with customers. Combined with sleek hardware, they offer much more than simple payments acceptance and are likely to appeal to a broad range of merchants. I am sure I haven’t mentioned everything that was worth mentioning (for example, Peter Diamandis’ opening keynote was truly inspiring). If you attended the event and would like to add your observations, please leave a comment to this post.

Is MCX Betting On QR Codes and ACH?

In my recent report on Digital Wallets, I discussed a number of players which while still keeping their cards close to their chests, have a potential to significantly influence the payments market. One of them is Apple, which made headlines recently with their patent for cash distribution without ATMs – see Bob Meara’s excellent blog and my related comments for more details. Another one is MCX (Merchant Customer Exchange), a joint mobile wallet initiative amongst a number of the US retailers. The initiative was announced in August 2012, but the details have remained scarce since. The participating retailers have been talking about their desire to have a collective voice in shaping the future of mobile payments, and protect their data and customers. They have talked about developing a wallet, but it hasn’t been clear if they also had ambitions to create a new payment scheme or would rather rely on the traditional cards in their wallet. So I was intrigued to come across an article that appears to shed a little more light on MCX ambitions in payments. Citing sources close to MCX, the article suggests that MCX is indeed planning to build a new payment system based on QR codes and ACH payments cutting the transaction costs to 4c. Two cents would go to the FI for processing an ACH payment and the other two would go to the technology partners and towards future MCX development. If it is indeed a confirmation that MCX are inclined to build alternatives to cards, then it is very interesting. However, it is still not clear how such a payments system would work:
  • Would the QR code identify the customer, the merchant’s payment request or just the merchant?
  • Would the customers be asked to register their bank account details with MCX wallet in the cloud? I can imaging this would be a big stumbling block for many consumers.
  • Will the transaction be based on ACH debit or credit?
  • If it’s debit, how will the authorisation happen? If there is no authorisation, will the fraud costs just become unacceptably high negating any savings on the interchange? There is speculation that consumers would be asked to register their debit card, which would be used for authorisation over card network rails, and then the transaction would convert into an ACH debit for clearing and settlement. If that’s the case, the overall transcation costs need to include the authorisation fee as well. And it sounds very similar to many decoupled debit propositions, most of which have failed to ignite the market so far.
  • If it’s credit, the authorisation challenge turns into the authentication challenge. One way to solve it would be to ask a customer to log-in to their bank account (e.g. through a mobile banking app) and authorise a payment to the merchant. Somebody would also need to pass a token to the customer’s bank with the payment request details. This is pretty much how Online Banking ePayments (OBeP) networks work; however, attempts to build such a network in the US (e.g. NACHA’s Secure Vault Payments) have again had limited success so far.
More questions can be raised and that’s just about the technical aspects of the solution. Commercial and other questions might prove to be just as difficult to answer. Will the banks co-operate? Will the proposed restrictions for participating retailers to accept other types of mobile payments (e.g. Isis or Google) work against MCX? Will the stated desire not to share any customer data amongst the participants limit the commercial opportunity? And will the (inevitable) delays to a project of such scale and uncertainty grind the intiative to a halt before it even has a chance to take off? Only time will tell if MCX succeeds. For now, I suggest we continue to keep an eye on its progress with a healthy dose of scepticism.