BANKTHINK

Mobile Wallet's Missing Ingredient: a Reason to Use It

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When American Express Co. came out with Serve, I signed up for the card right away. It’s been sitting in my wallet ever since.

As a reporter covering payments and a tech nerd, I was curious about the product, Amex’s version of the digital wallet. But as a consumer, I’ve had no incentive to use it – or any of the other newfangled mobile payments options we write about every day. When it comes time to pay at the register, I’m still reaching for my leather wallet, which I bought for $5 on a New York City street corner, not my iPhone. 

It all comes down to economics. I can earn reward points by paying with my regular American Express credit card. Right now, none of the mobile wallets give consumers such incentives.

Of course, rewards such as electronic coupons stand to be the virtual wallets’ most compelling feature – eventually. But these perks are not available to early adopters, or would-be ones like me. 

Each of these offerings has its strengths and weaknesses. At the moment, PayPal’s mobile payments system is probably the strongest because it doesn't rely on any specific consumer hardware.

To pay at the point of sale, users register a phone, but they don't need to have the phone with them. Funds are accessed when users type in their phone number and PIN. If users also have PayPal's smartphone app, they can check balances or make person-to-person payments.
Google Wallet has a number of merchant deals in place today. But Google seems to be getting ahead of itself. With Verizon Wireless reportedly resisting the Google Wallet app on its phones, consumers' only option remains the fuddy-duddy (by consumer tech standards) Nexus S smartphone from Sprint. So when I see the Google Wallet logo on terminals at my Duane Reade, I’m not motivated to switch to a new phone to try it out.

On the surface, Serve looks like PayPal's mobile wallet. Amex acts as the merchant of record and moves cash to a stored-value account before it is spent. Merchants draw from that account when a transaction is made. In this way, Serve functions much like a prepaid card — but only at merchants that accept Amex.

Cash and traditional cards are entrenched. Without rewards, the digital wallets are unlikely to make a dent. If even someone like me, who lives and breathes payments technology for a living, can't be compelled to use the mobile option, the average consumer may hang up on it too quickly.

 Sean Sposito is a reporter covering technology for American Banker. The views expressed are his own.

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Comments (1)
Patience. "Cash" in one hard media form or another has been around for centuries; it will be replaced, but not immediately. As smartphones use continue to grow and as applications for money movement and payments become very readily available both on the phone and with the merchants, it will become just as easy to wave your phone, or press a button, as it is to dig into your pants, pull out your wallet and pay with physical cash. But, this will take some years, maybe a decade, but not centuries.
Posted by Yaldez4FSI | Wednesday, February 01 2012 at 1:04PM ET
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