The Future of Payments – The Global Challenge

Commerce has always been defined as the interchange of goods and services for money. It still is, but the way commerce is conducted is in the middle of sweeping change. Merchants that anticipate these changes and prepare for them will win; others will struggle to survive.

Cash was invented in the 7th century and since then, broadly speaking, it has been the most common way to pay for the transfer of goods and services. Market places and shops have always been useful as central points to find products we need.  Shopkeepers have always played an important part in choosing the right transaction, providing valuable information about products and services and facilitating choice.  Over the last decade however these transaction stalwarts are being challenged because the retail payment process is undergoing a transformation.  As electronic payments get easier, is there a need for coins and notes? As the Internet gives the corner shop a global footprint, how will retailers respond to and support their new customers? And, logistics and supply chain issues aside, which payment options will ensure secure and efficient transactions?

The Future of Payments – Options and Possibilities

Starting with the cash debate. It’s true that developed countries are becoming ever less dependent on cash, as debit and credit cards, “virtual wallets” and other substitutes grow in popularity. In developing countries cash and bartering has been the prominent method of exchange particularly as the vast majority of people are unbanked. This however is changing; in Kenya, for example, over 80% of adults have a mobile money account[1].  Although electronic and mobile money systems are generally safe and effective methods of payment it is not all straight forward. Success of these systems depends on creating incremental value for consumers and merchants and changing behaviour. This is the reason that while there has been significant progress, 85% of global payment transactions are still made with cash[1].  So what is the future of cash? What electronic payment forms are likely to be successful in the future? If we really are heading for a cashless world then what would this mean for retailers?

It’s no surprise that, given the avalanche of technological innovation, retailers have had to extend the ways they accept payments, thinking of different ways to meet customer demand. There are myriad ways in which customers can now pay for their goods like e-shopping with a smartphone, laptop, tablet and even in store. “Omnichannel” is the current buzz word and is a multichannel approach to sales.  A key element of it is a consistent and integrated shopping experience across different channels such as a desktop or mobile device, by telephone or in a bricks and mortar store. Many brick-and-mortar retailers around the world including the likes of Walmart, Tesco, Target, and Best Buy have built an ecommerce presence to adapt to the new environment but perhaps more interestingly, even ecommerce giants like Amazon are now planning physical stores.   So is omnichannel just a buzz word? How important is the consistent shopping experience across channels? What is the future of physical stores? Can bricks keep pace with clicks or is it in fact the other way around?

These omni-channel options mean that retailers have to work hard to complete a sale.  Online or off line the challenge is the same, to provide a personal service but on a global scale; as the economist puts it despite a global market place retailers have to provide each customer with  “a single salesman with an unfailing memory and an uncanny intuition about their preferences”.  Few would argue that the judicial use of big data will help but although there is a lot of talk about its efficacy most of the opportunities big data can offer have yet to be fully exploited. The reality is that there are different chunks of data that are collected, stored and managed in multiple ways. On top of this much is still locked away, stuck on legacy systems that will take years to unpick.  Access to relevant information let along the crunching of it will take some doing. Big retailers like Walmart, Tesco, Target, and Best Buy are better positioned to leverage big data to tap the omnichannel trend. But what can smaller bricks and mortar stores do?

The point of interaction (POI), the moment where customers and merchants interact to complete the transaction has undergone significant change over the last decade and indications are that this will continue.  There are multiple ways to pay and we can expect the “can’t find my wallet” excuse to be a thing of the past as we increasingly grow used to mobile payments. Global standards such as EMV have added additional security, and many now think nothing of buying their coffee’s with a mobile phone thanks to innovations in Near Field Communication (NFC). Recently Apple Pay is looking to redefine the process again using biometrics and card tokenization. Holding a phone however is likely to remain just one of several widely accepted ways to pay but how the multiple options will combine to ensure a safe and convenient transaction method at the POI is a question that both merchants and customers are grappling with.

For retailers an age-old concern continues to niggle.  How can they offer value-add to their customers?  In a world of unprecedented information access customers are now better equipped to dictate what they want, what price they want to pay, when they want it, where they want it and from whom they want it. The buying process is no longer linear but ducks and dives from tablets to in-store to mobile via friends’ recommendations to the opinions of strangers then back to the computer again.  Retailers, striving to maintain an ongoing relationship with their customers, are faced with multiple ways to communicate and engage and can gather data from many sources.  Those who manage to connect to their customers can build a more detailed picture of who they are selling to than ever before.  The challenge for retailers is, in a world where social media drives commerce, how to build and retain loyalty and trust with their customers.

All the evidence suggests that the use of cash is in decline across the globe. The World Bank reports that there were 83 cash dispensers for every 100,000 adults in the US in 2008 but by 2012 there were only 68. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has also published a report showing that in America, the share of transactions using cash has fallen; between 1993 to 2013, although the American economy grew in real (inflation-adjusted) terms by 65%, notes of $50 or lower grew by just 19%.  In comparison to this share of debit and credit card payments increased by 20% in US in the 5 years starting 2006 based on analysis by MasterCard analysis.  There are several reasons for this. First, Cash takes time to get at, is riskier to carry, and by most estimates, cash costs society as much as 1.5% of GDP[1]. Second, merchants make fewer profits using cash. In fact when benefits of electronic payments such as driving greater customer satisfaction and loyalty for merchants over cash are considered, MasterCard’s research shows merchants can make $40K more in profits for $1MM in sales.

Third, Cash by comparison can be a hindrance to financial inclusion. Indeed in a recent study MasterCard found that electronic payments are an effective entry point for financial inclusion. With governments, international development agencies, academics and the private sector, making financial inclusion a priority on the agenda, it is likely we will see a significant portion of the 2.5 billion currently unbanked adults armed with electronic payments products in the future.  Over the next decade cash quite possibly will lose out to technology. And electronic payments are not confined to the developed world; in Kenya over 80% of adults—use a mobile-phone payment service called M-PESA that can also cater to business customers too.

Turning to the real world of bricks and mortar retail.  Retailers are finding it tough to keep up with their more nimble online counterparts.  First they have to contend with the costs of floor space but they also have to acknowledge that their customers have more choices and are more informed that they have ever been before.

How to manage cross border commerce is a big challenge.  Our research shows that since 2009, international visitor arrivals and spending have grown faster than real global GDP.  It also forecasts that cross-border visitors to the 10 leading destination cities will spend $136 billion during 2014. Even a 1 percent share of a leading market such as New York or London is near $200 million in annual revenue. Despite its size and strong growth, cross-border commerce is a challenging area.  When international travellers arrive, merchants sometimes have difficulty recognizing them, anticipating their needs and catering to them. Even worse, most merchants neither recognize the size of the cross-border opportunity nor understand their current share. Cross border spending is not a trivial issue and the challenge for the next decade is to build wider understanding of the opportunity and create ways in which retailers can better understand customers from abroad.