During the last couple of years, we’ve seen the conversation about mobile commerce shift as efforts from payment networks, mobile network providers and technology firms have been rolled out with quite limited success. Projections of rapid adoption have given way to discussion of why it isn’t happening.
I’ve long argued that mobile payments, in markets such as the U.S. where paying by plastic are well established, are hamstrung by the lack of value for merchants and consumers. Merchants don’t see a benefit moving the existing payments system to a new platform and consumers have no complaints about paying with plastic.
Changing consumer behavior from something about no one complains about require a strong incentive. And that incentive won’t come from issuers or third parties, but rather from merchants.
As Anthony Belpaire noted in his recent post, data is the key to making mobile payments work. And I’d agree with him that, of the many involved in mobile payments, no one entity has all the data needed.
But merchants come close.
Think of what they have — they know all that the networks and issuers know — how a purchase is made, at which store, and when — as well as what the customer bought.
Now think about the lousy ads you get served on websites (just because you once clicked by accident on a men’s magazine link doesn’t mean you’re in the market for testosterone pills…). Think of the lame offers you get if you signed up for with a daily deals provider. They are based more on stopping by the store than buying something.
The level of information retailers have, which they use for tracking their inventory, is called SKU (for stock keeping unit) data. This shows exactly what a customer has bought, to the most detailed level, pretty much what you see on a the receipt you get at checkout. And this is the information that gives the most information about buying habits, and, used well, what a consumer might be interested in buying.
But this information is not sent with payment information, thus issuers and processors do not see it. And merchants have little reason to provide this information — there are additional costs to provide it (e.g. larger data record) and in most cases, no incremental benefit. In a few cases, the larger data record (Level 3) can provide an interchange benefit, but meeting Level 3 requirements doesn’t require SKU data.
So merchants have the data, and few others. And that the value of that data is huge. You might remember an article from the New York Times magazine last year, about how Target figured out a woman was pregnant before her family knew.
One reaction to the article was a feeling of creepiness about what the company could figure out — a large part of what, I think, the Times intended. But there is a different way to view it. Think of the owner of a store where you frequently shop, an owner who knows what you like and can suggest new things to you. There aren’t many customer/shop owner relationships of this sort in the U.S. today. But technology can, at least partially, fill the role.
Some consumers might opt out, those people who’d never chat much with a shopkeeper. But for consumers who opt in, this allows offers and promotions that really meet needs.
And for a merchant who spends untargeted money on broad-based offers, perhaps paying more for customers who would have bought anyway, this targeting is worth a lot. Few merchants are as sophisticated as Target, but that matters less today with all of the advances in analytics and third parties who can provide such services.
Now bring this back to mobile payments, with the need for value enough for merchants to invest and consumers to change behavior. Here is that value. And it is value that can provided largely with data that only merchants have, thus making merchants central to mobile payments adoption in a market like the U.S.
Keep an eye on MCX; they have many challenges, but they are starting with the most important pieces of the puzzle.
David is a new product, marketing and business development professional with deep experience in payments and a passion finding business benefits of technology. He has a particular focus on mobile and prepaid.