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Is it time to leave the cash and cards at home?

I am recently back to Madrid from a week-long business trip to San Francisco. Despite working in the mobile financial services industry for the past 5 years, until this week I had never encountered a true opportunity to engage in native mobile payment and commerce transactions. Before arriving in San Francisco on Tuesday night, I could count with one hands the number of times I had engaged in a mobile payment transaction at a point of sale, all of which had been part of an NFC trial we launched when I was employed by a bank.

At some point during my 16-hour journey between Madrid and San Francisco (which included a brief stopover in Munich), I decided that I was going to perform a non-scientific, qualitative experiment in mobile payments and commerce. Thanks in part to in-air WiFi, I spent part of my flight downloading apps and enrolling in the different services.

Overall my experiences were positive having used apps and services like Über, Square, LevelUp and Passbook. It was easy to enroll, some even offering a card capture feature that uses the camera on my smartphone in order to forgo the tedious exercise of manually inputting credit card data. Most importantly, paying became fun! Sometimes it was so much fun, I was hardly conscious that I was paying at all, and were it not for real-time AMEX card alerts delivered through Passbook, I would not be conscious of the cost of certain services until the beginning of next month.

The biggest challenges and drawbacks I encountered had to do with roaming charges when consuming data when traveling. My reluctance to incur in these obscene fees meant I was consistently sniffing for free WiFi networks as I walked the streets of San Francisco, which significantly reduced the battery life of my smartphone. To this point, my first observation is that full-blown success of a mobile wallet will be heavily dependent on overcoming barriers such as cell phone service coverage, data consumption cost (when roaming) and battery life. Without any of these, a mobile-based payment and commerce solution is worthless.

That being said, and despite enjoying each of my experiences individually, a second observation is that service offering today is too fragmented. I know that consolidation will follow, but today there are too many wallets and apps, each offering their own enrollment, experience and alerting engine. As a consumer, I would love a one-stop shop application that satisfies all of my mobile commerce needs.

Lastly, it was not uncommon to come across merchants who had no idea what Square or Levelup are or do. Both at large retailers and restaurants, I found myself informing staff as to the benefits of using a mobile technologies for making or receiving payments at the point of sale. While my intention was to replace both cash and physical card transaction with their mobile counterparts throughout my entire stay, I found myself substituting smaller payments (a coffee, a sandwich, a taxi, etc.) with my mobile, but had a harder time paying with my mobile at large retailers and expensive restaurants, which happen to be larger ticket items or services (where I would more highly value a coupon or discount).

In summary, the key take-aways from last week were – 

- It’s about enhancing the commerce experience, not the payment itself. Whether its shopping from the phone, performing an in-store search, engaging in a payment at the POS, or searching the neighborhood for the best deals, innovation is driving commerce and payment initiation, not the funding or delivery of payment to the receiver.

- Despite astounding figures we read and hear about day after day in the press, industry conferences and analyst reports, my feeling as I walked the streets is that mobile commerce has not yet reached critical mass, even in an innovation-friendly, tech-driven city like San Francisco.

- Too much fragmentation makes for no clear winner. I think the key to success will be who can aggregate services quickest in order to drive consumers to a single (or two at most) mobile commerce experience with, Google wallet, Passbook and MCX the clear front-runners in the US.

Note: upon arrival in Madrid on late Saturday night, already outside the scope of my experiment, I called the taxi dispatch I always use when traveling from airport to home. They told be there were no cabs available and that I had to wait 40 minutes!  Since I had no cash and regular taxis who line up at the airport in Madrid usually do not take cards, I quickly downloaded Cabify (the local equivalent of Über) and had a car pick me up, all in less than 15 minutes, for the a rate much lower than any cab would have charged me, and at a much greater convenience.



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Andres Fontao

Andres Fontao



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12 Oct 2011



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Payments strategies 2015-2020-2030

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