Tech companies from Seattle to Silicon Valley, intent on transforming how we shop, have set their sights on the electronic payments industry.
Microsoft is building a digital wallet into its next generation of mobile phones. Apple is moving into loyalty cards, and Google has set its sights on payments. The online payment service PayPal is also pushing into traditional retail stores.
But if you expect this to mean that merchants and consumers will save money on transactions, don't hold your breath.
For now, technology companies trying to break into the payments business have decided to work with banks and credit card companies. That means the billions in transaction fees merchants pay (and often pass on to consumers) every year are only likely to grow.
Wallets Living In The Cloud
PayPal is now accepted at more than 2,000 Home Depot stores across the country. In the next month, the company, which once existed only in cyberspace, will invade Abercrombie and Fitch.
PayPal President David Marcus says he wants your wallet to live in the cloud so that you can pay for products and services online, or in the real world using PayPal with almost any device — or even no device at all. An online video ad for PayPal and Vend, a New Zealand-based startup that creates payment software for retailers, shows a skydiver paying for his trip while still in free fall.
"So you can literally pay hands-free if you check in [with a mobile payment app] and say you're ready to pay," Marcus explains.
At Home Depot, it's now possible to check out using just a personal identification number and your mobile phone number. This new service can be incredibly convenient for customers on the go, and for merchants like Home Depot, it promises to boost sales.
A Hunger For More Information
Brick-and-mortar retailers are hungry for more data about their customers. Creating a digital wallet or online program to manage loyalty programs could help retailers find out which products customers are looking at, and if they are comparison shopping online with their smartphones.
"With a digital wallet, all of your coupons, your loyalty points, everything will be deducted automatically from all of your purchases, so [the customer doesn't] have to think about it," Marcus says.
Square, one of the fastest-growing startups in San Francisco, uses GPS in your mobile phone to show a picture of you to a store clerk when you walk into their shop. To check out, you can just give them your name.
Keith Rabois, Square's chief operating officer, says using mobile payments will help retailers track when customers walk into a store and if they leave without buying anything. "You can identify your best customers and track their sales over time," Rabois says.
Same Fees, More Business
Google, Apple, Microsoft, Intuit and Square are all trying to break into the market for digital wallets. But with all these high-tech giants trying to make this work, the leader in mobile payments might surprise you. Starbucks, according to the Electronic Transaction Association's CEO Jason Oxman, is currently the largest mobile payments network in the U.S.
Oxman is optimistic about the future of the digital wallet. It used to cost thousands of dollars for merchants to get set up to take credit cards. Now, because of companies like Square, all you need is a smartphone.
But Oxman doesn't believe the digital wallet will displace the credit card industry. If anything, he says, it will help the already enormous industry grow even faster.
Last year, consumers around the world used debit and credit cards more than 135 billion times, paying more than $11 trillion in purchases globally. And there are lots of little ways for the transaction business to make money. Visa and MasterCard charge swipe fees on every transaction at stores like coffee shops. Last year in the U.S. alone, card companies and banks made close to $50 billion that way.
"[The transaction fees have] caused a lot of angst within the retail community," says the National Retail Federation's Mallory Duncan, who had hoped tech companies breaking into the payments industry would try to drive those fees down.
Instead, companies like PayPal and Square have built their technologies to work in concert with the credit card companies. They simply link your smartphone or an online account to the cards you already have, resulting in the same card fees for each transaction.
Duncan says it's "not an ideal solution for anybody." But for the banks and credit card companies that already earn tens of billions of dollars in fees, business is getting bigger.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, Microsoft announces it was building a sort of digital wallet into its next generation of mobile phones. And that means a new role for PayPal, the online payment service. It's had a big presence on the Web for a while, but until recently was nowhere to be found in the world of traditional retail stores. Now PayPal is accepted in more than 2,000 Home Depot stores across the country.
It and half a dozen other tech companies are hoping to change the way that we shop, as NPR's Steve Henn reports.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Excuse me, do you sell like carpet spot remover?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
HENN: More than once I've run out in the midst of a minor home repair emergency and forgotten my wallet.
I have kids and they spilled olive oil on a carpet. Will this actually take that off?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This should be able to take it off.
HENN: But now freaking out and leaving your wallet behind doesn't necessarily mean an extra trip.
Enter phone number.
At Home Depot recently I checked out, simply by typing in my mobile phone number and a pin.
Enter your PayPal pass code.
And PayPal isn't the only company doing this kind of thing. Square, a start-up in San Francisco, uses GPS in you phone to show a picture of you to a store clerk when you walk into their shop. To check out, you can just give them your name.
And that's it. I'm done. I didn't have to swipe anything, scan anything. Half a dozen tech companies in Silicon Valley are investing millions in new technologies that aim to make spending money even easier. One customer...
DAVID MARCUS: They actually paid skydiving. And it worked, and it was for real.
HENN: David Marcus Pay Pal's president.
MARCUS: With a digital wallet, all of your coupons, your loyalty points, everything will be deducted automatically from all of your purchases so you don't have to think about it.
HENN: Other companies, including Apple, are doing the same thing. And Keith Rabois - chief operating officer at Square says mobile payments will also give retailers much more information about their customers. Using GPS in your phone, they could even know when you walk into a store and if you leave without buying anything.
KEITH RABOIS: You can identify your best customers and track their sales over time.
HENN: Intuit and Google are attempting to break into this business too. But with all these high-tech giants trying to make this work, the leader in mobile payments is...
JASON OXMAN: Starbucks.
HENN: Jason Oxman is president of the Electronic Transaction Association.
OXMAN: Starbucks currently is the largest mobile payments network in the country.
HENN: Sorry, Google.
HENN: Starbucks has an app that lets you pay for coffee with your phone, and right now it has more mobile users than Paypal, Google Square, or anyone else. Still, Oxman's optimistic about the future of the digital wallet.
OXMAN: It really creates new opportunities for merchants to accept credit cards and debit cards.
HENN: It used to cost thousands of dollars to get set up to take credit cards. Now all you need is a smartphone. Oxman believes the digital wallet isn't going to replace the credit card industry any time soon. In fact, he says if anything, he thinks it will help it grow even faster. And this industry is already enormous. Last year, consumers around the world used debit and credit cards more 135 billion times.
In 2011, people used plastic to pay for more than $11 trillion in purchases globally. And if you're in the transaction business, there are lots of little ways to make money. Visa and MasterCard charge stores like coffee shops swipe fees on every transaction. Last year in the U.S., card companies and banks made close to $50 billion this way.
MALLORY DUNCAN: And that's caused a lot of angst within the retail community.
HENN: Mallory Duncan is at the National Retail Federation. Duncan was hoping that tech companies breaking into this business would try to drive those fees down. But that's not happening. Instead, companies like PayPal and Square have built their technologies to work in concert with the credit card companies. They simply link your Smartphone or an online account to the cards you already have.
DUNCAN: In which case you get you get all of the old fees, many of the old problems, and additional new costs. Not an ideal solution for anyone.
HENN: On the other hand, all these new technologies do make buying stuff even easier. And my wife was pretty happy to come home and see that those olive oil stains on the carpet were gone. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.