Mobile payments is an exciting area of cultural and technological disruption, and at the same time a solution in search of a problem. Somewhere in all the excitement, we seem to have forgotten that paying for things with cash or credit card ain’t broke.
We’ve been covering mobile payments closely on this blog and many other places because it’s endemic to local commerce. Compared with m-commerce (i.e. Amazon Mobile), we’re talking about the emerging area of paying for physical goods in physical stores with your phone.
Or in some cases the mobile device isn’t on the user end but on the merchant end. That’s where we see things like Square and PayPal Here, which truly are disruptive technologies that democratize credit card acceptance among a huge swath of very small businesses (VSBs).
But notice how those few examples are the biggest success stories in what’s become known as “mobile payments.” One seldom-cited reason for this success is because they haven’t asked the user to change behavior. In other words, it’s still just a good old fashioned credit card swipe.
Compare that with many mobile payment technologies that ask the user to jump through a bunch of hoops to set up accounts. Once set up, the value proposition includes having a wallet that is lighter by the atomic weight of a Visa card. Or a loyalty program to get a free small coffee once a month.
Near field communication (NFC) is another example. Besides being held back by chicken-and-egg implementation challenges (device and POS compatibility, network effect, etc.), the value proposition was never that great to begin with: Tap your phone instead of swipe a card.
Add to all of this the fact that payments is a very entrenched habit for which comfort levels, security, and acclimation are paramount. Changing habits in such areas isn’t going to happen through marginal offers; it will require sizable incentives. For example, saving time. Lots of time.
That’s where Starbucks is moving. It has been the poster child of mobile payments by using its brand to put the practice on the map and to acclimate users. Its customer base, as well, consists of a lot of savvy iPhone users — so it’s not a bad place to start a cultural shift through early adopters and influencers.
But Starbucks’ payment app will show its true ability to achieve mainstream appeal in its next big move: ordering in advance. We’re talking personalized orders (as it goes with coffee) set in advance, paid for, and swiftly picked up — a fitting proposition for hurried morning addicts.
PayPal is executing a similar strategy on a broader scale. Its app lets users expedite restaurant checks (a common pain point) or order things in advance and “skip the line.” Like the Starbucks example, skipping lines is a tangible incentive, which also has a certain VIP vanity factor built in.
And for merchants, there are lots of benefits like repeat business and yield optimization. I’m convinced the deals craze circa 2010 will finally reach its promise when it is introduced to SMBs through the trojan horse of payment processing. This is where PayPal is going, as well as other innovators like Swipely.
Another place mobile proximity payments is showing promise isn’t even a mobile payments play: Uber. Paying for your ride in the background instead of cash is not only convenient but it cleverly sidesteps the psychological “sticker shock” and price sensitivity inherent in watching a running meter.
Apple could be another sleeping giant when it comes to adoption incentives. It owns the user touchpoint (iPhone), payment processing (iTunes) and in-store engagement (iBeacon). Wandering Ikea, scanning items, paying and skipping checkout aisles is a nice proposition (more on that vision here).
And who knows where it will go from there — likely advancements in the above vision that involve different form factors like wearables or Google Glass. But one thing’s for sure, if you’re going to get anyone to stop using cash or credit, offer them something better than a thinner wallet.
Michael Boland is senior analyst at BIA/Kelsey, where he heads up the firm’s mobile local coverage. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.