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Apple Pay: Big questions remain about what U.S. merchants get out of it

Apple Pay: Big questions remain about what U.S. merchants get out of it

You’ll pardon U.S. merchants for not throwing a parade for Apple Pay.

Consumer research reports that came out in advance of the holiday season said that as many as a third of survey respondents indicated they’d like to use some form of mobile payment for their shopping this year.

And a new study by Retale has stated that 56 percent (!) of people want to use mobile payments this shopping season. But the majority of the available mobile payment technologies use near-field communications (NFC), which would only let those people pay at 3 percent of the places they shop, researchers say.

I’ve been using Apple Pay for a few weeks now, and while I enjoy how well it works from a technological standpoint I can’t help but wonder what merchants are getting out of the deal.

Apple is hoping that as more of its phones have an NFC chip inside, more people will begin to consider Apple Pay an indispensable aspect of their phone. If such a groundswell of adoption happens, merchants like Joe’s Market on the corner might be forced to support mobile payments, or risk customers migrating somewhere that does.

Merchants, in order to comply, have to invest in contactless point-of-sale systems that support NFC. This costs several thousand dollars and a lot of employee training. And whether the card is in a wallet or on a phone the merchant still has to pay the 2 to 3 percent interchange fee on every transaction.

Some of the bigger retailers who were named as official Apple Pay partners are getting a good publicity payoff for supporting the new payment method.

“Many retailers are eager to try anything,” says Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.

“I use the analogy that teenage girls are to Justin Bieber as merchants are to tech titans like Apple and Facebook. They’re just excited to get a call and asked to do anything. Very few of them step back and ask, ‘Does this really make sense for me?’” Mulpuru says.

Mulpuru thinks the best digital wallet solution today is Starbucks, which she points out has been successful on its own because it offers consumers loyalty data. “That’s a win for the shopper and for the retailer and makes a lot more sense to me,” she says.

Retailers and consumers are concerned about the security of payments data, and this is an area in which Apple’s mobile payments work very well. Apple Pay stores the user’s credit or debit card data as a code stored in the the phone’s secure element, and the system generates a unique token to represent each transaction. This would make it way harder for a bad actor to steal card info.

But the constant cost of interchange fees, Mulpuru says, are more of an issue to merchants that the possible cost of a data breach.

She uses a major national retailer as an example. “Target had a terrible data breach and had to pay out maybe a few hundred million,” Mulpuru says, adding that the chance of a company getting hit with a major data breach is less than 20 percent.

“Interchange, on the other hand, costs the company more than a billion dollars every year,” she says. “That’s why MCX is so much more interesting to retailers than Apple Pay.”

She’s referring to the MCX mobile payments system, which is backed by a consortium of big retailers including Walmart. This system and its app, CurrentC, use clunkier technology than Google Wallet or Apple Pay, but it forms a direct link between the merchant and the bank so that the merchant doesn’t have to pay the 2 to 4 percent interchange fee to the credit card companies.

We’ll find out in 2015 if the mobile payments revolution will be driven by consumers, or by merchants. The answer to that question will determine whether Apple and Google, or MCX, will be the owner of the dominate mobile payments system.


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