Today, banks involved in the issuances of credit cards, and companies at the nexus of merchant services, are experiencing a rare event in the industry.
For years, digital payment innovators fought a hard battle to adopt contactless systems and create standards. The effort and push came from companies with much of the effort directed at consumers to adopt their methodology. Whether it is Samsung Pay, Google Pay, or Apple Pay they all had to overcome similar hurdles – consumers were reluctant to adopt a technology that did not have a sufficient number of merchants; thus the progress was slow.
The COVID-19 pandemic rewrote the script in a whirlwind. All of a sudden consumers began to demand contactless payment experiences in every way imaginable. The supply side push has turned into a demand side pull and the adoption rate is spiking.
This left banks, originators and companies involved in the eco-system with an interesting dilemma – fast decisions have to be made as to which digital technology to invest in and do they bind themselves, for multiple years going forward, to a specific infrastructure.
While previously the belief was that this could be explored over a longer period of time, the current reality is that these decisions are forced on institutions “overnight”. In this light, there are many different aspects to contactless payments, and originators and banks need to make smart bets on which type should be supported.
So, let’s look at all the relevant elements of contactless payments to explore a better model for institutional support.
General Drivers of Contactless Acceptance Growths
Physical safety from virus infection by avoiding touching 3rd party equipment or allowing safe distancing from other people and/or equipment is the main driver today. It has been emphasized by many epidemiologists as a basic requirement for conducting business. Consequently, it will be no surprise that safety is the factor that underlies the rapid adoption of a number of contactless payment technologies by once reluctant consumers.
We expect this to be a primary driver well into 2021. Thus, any technology to be rolled out in the short term should enhance safety in some form or contribute in a way to the improvement of safety.
An early benefit highlighted and emphasized by contactless technology providers was the data-security aspect that surrounds the transaction. Rather than exchanging the actual credit card number, for example, a tokenization is performed to create transaction specific tokens that are then used to complete the transaction. Even when intercepted, these tokens cannot be used outside this transaction and, thus, the approach is considered to be more secure.
Although the data-security value was incessantly marketed to consumers, most had, and still have, a limited understanding of the implementation of the technology. Thus, the appeal to the consumer with this benefit was not successful. However, the increased security elements were a clearer benefit for merchants and issuers. Hence, a steady growth of terminals and accepting merchants was the result.
In general, the tokenization approach to security has been chosen for many types of contactless payment systems, this includes NFC based card chips, digital payments like Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay. However, for QR payments the use of tokenization should be verified as there are no current standards that govern its use consistently.
Convenience was the aspect of many contactless payments system that appealed the most to consumers prior to Covid-19. The ability to either very quickly conduct a transaction or very flexibly conduct a transaction drove consumer adoption. For example, being able to load many payment methods onto a mobile device that users carry with them anywhere increased the appeal of use to consumers.
Thus, when evaluating a particular contactless payment technology with a longer-term outlook the convenience aspect should be emphasized. Given the historical basis, consumers are very likely to be attracted by this aspect as the main driver of adoption again. A financial institutions’ post-Covid planning and investment models for contactless technology should consider this to be a major aspect.
Contactless Payment Categories
When we speak of contactless payment systems, we normally refer to any payment technology that can trigger a payment transaction in the physical space with direct consumer presence, but without direct contact with merchant equipment. Thus, we would exclude online and ecommerce transactions for this purpose.
We will focus on the two mainstream contactless technologies, NFC and QR payments, and review them here. Other contactless payment technologies exist but have not reached widespread adoption. We will only provide brief overview of those.
Near Field Communication (NFC) payments are the earliest form of contactless payments that found acceptance in the markets. Generally, two devices are needed and must be near each other to communicate via radio signals. Both the reader (interrogator) and sender (tag) must be within 4cm (1.5in) for the transaction to be initiated. ExxonMobile’s Speedpass is widely believed to be the first implementation of this touch and go type of pay experience that has come to exemplify NFC based contactless payments.
There are two common sub-categories from that technology today; The single card-based sender (tag) and the mobile-phone-based sender (tag). The mobile phone-based application tends to be more flexible allowing consumers to combine multiple cards into one mobile-wallet that is secured with some form with biometric access.
However, NFC signals are not uniform and different standards are used in the Far East (i.e. Japan) rather than in Europe.
NFC payments found early success in developed western markets where the population already had easy access to banking and bank issued card-based tags. However, in countries where the banking system developed later and card-based payments were not common, NFC payments did not flourish.
Thus, today, the market for NFC is mainly concentrated in Europe, Japan, and US.
The roll out of NFC requires hardware on the merchant and consumer side. The merchant hardware is normally leased, and leasing programs have been steady revenue generators for those companies. Whereas, today, the global contactless Point of Sale (POS) terminals market is poised to grow by $5.54 bn during 2020-2024, progressing at a CAGR of 16% during the forecast period, according to research done by Technavio.
However, with the pandemic, the speed of system activation has been a key criterium for selection of the technology. In this context, delivery of hardware, setting up of POS systems and testing connectivity slows down rollouts and potential revenue.
Similarly, requiring consumers to be equipped with supporting hardware may also introduce a friction element, especially in markets where NFC has gained less momentum.
QR codes are like 3D barcodes. The user scans the QR code via a smartphone and the smartphone, then interprets the barcode and a related website or application may complete the payment process. Like NFC, this can be done very quickly without any contact between smartphone (reader) and the item or display using the QR code.
Normally, QR codes are immutable, meaning that once generated they do not change. However, there are now dynamic smart QR codes, like the ones Xcoobee offers, that can overcome this limitation.
QR codes found strong distribution in markets where banking reach was limited in some form through government or market forces. The QR payment process, in many markets, also exemplifies a jump to direct digital payment, bypassing much of the banking system for purchase transactions. Especially when QR payment systems are connected to mobile wallets the provider of the wallet handles all transaction steps in-system, reducing friction and creating an ease to use and adoption. They have found popularity mainly in China, where AliPay and WeChat pay are gaining dominant market shares.
However, with the advent of COVID and the speed advantages in implementation and cost, other non-traditional markets such as EU and US are seeing dramatic increases in use of QR payments as well.
Activation of QR code payments commonly requires merchants to simply print codes, which can be accomplished with less hardware. The integration into bank systems is handled via merchant or bank app and the consumer simply requires a smartphone.
While bank offerings in this segment tend to be limited, given the simplified requirements, QR implementation can be quick for merchants to roll out.
Other Contactless Options
There are other contactless payment technologies that are currently competing for market attention and can be grouped into a biometric group and a technology group. The biometric group includes such options as voice, facial or palm recognition-based payments while the technology group includes options like Bluetooth and Farfield-type technologies.
None of these have gained sufficient market share or have execution or security advantages that would push them ahead without concerted efforts from large market-players. Similarly, there is no consumer advantage that would drive a consumer demand-based distribution for these technologies.
NFC vs QR
Which one should you choose to support? Each one of these contactless payment methodologies has advantages and disadvantages. NFC can be nominally faster to use for consumers and more lucrative for banks, but QR codes currently reach a wider market since more phones can read them than those that can read NFC tags.
Operational simplicity and speed also favor QR code activation, but if there is already and existing NFC infrastructure this may become a secondary consideration.
Simply speaking, we are living through unprecedented times, consumers are demanding contactless payment and creating a demand side wave in exchange for safety. How each institution answers this call best will depend on circumstances and context.
Overall, it may be advisable to hedge bets and support both methodologies and offer services based on both. Evaluate customer input, and, then, adopt and activate the best option for your financial institution.
This article was originally published in Global Banking & Finance Review.