Dwolla Offers More Carrots to Boost Adoption

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In an effort to make its style of alternative mobile and online payments more accessible, Dwolla launched several new features Friday.

Among the recently released functions is a "guest checkout" element that will give buyers that have yet to use Dwolla a way to try it out.

At the onset, guest checkout will work with 21 merchants, including philanthropic websites Angelwish and Givr. It will require users to fill out an internet form with their bank account and routing information instead of their credit card information. Buyers will also be required to give their names, addresses and phone numbers in order to complete those transactions.

This "is about addressing one of our own shortcomings: the 'chicken or the egg' dilemma," said Dwolla spokesman Jordan Lampe, in a blog post. Up until now, "Dwolla merchants have been dependent on whether or not their customers have a Dwolla account to pay with Dwolla ... For the last year, we've been hard at work improving Dwolla in order to open our network and set it free."

Rick Oglesby, senior analyst at Aite Group, gives the approach high marks. "This is smart, it's a step towards making Dwolla an 'open loop' payment network through which any consumer can pay," he says. "Additionally, through the process of paying as a guest, a consumer will provide most or all of the information that is needed to enroll, so it will be a good opportunity for Dwolla to enroll these consumers at the point of payment. A key challenge will be to get consumers to choose the Dwolla payment in an environment where alternatives exist. It's a smart strategy but definitely not a silver bullet."

Another new feature from Dwolla, called Request, integrates with point-of-sale systems such as ShopKeep and Change — both of which operate cash register apps over mobile devices, such as Apple's iPad. This allows the point-of-sale endpoint, not Dwolla's app or mobile wallet partner, to initiate a payment and send the customer a push notification on her phone to authorize the payment. This eliminates the need for a Dwolla user to have to open the app, select the merchant and type in the payment amount.

Oglesby's reaction to this feature was mixed. "It's a step in the right direction but it's not all the way there," he says. "Having a consumer send money to a merchant can be a clunky experience, there's lots of opportunity for errors, and the transaction takes considerably longer than swiping a card or paying cash. This should reduce errors and the time it takes to complete the transaction, but it still requires the exchange of user information (the user must provide Facebook, Twitter or email ID to the merchant, the merchant can then send the request). The consumer then needs to authorize the payment, which will also take time." He expects to see Dwolla gravitate to barcodes or NFC eventually.

A third new feature the Des Moines, Iowa company announced this week is a Dwolla Price plugin that will give sellers a way to display better deals to customers who choose to pay using the low-cost service, which only charges a quarter per transaction to merchants (the transaction amount must be more than $10). The idea is that sellers will pass on approximately half the cash they save on transactions (debit, credit or otherwise) to their customers, and display the cheaper Dwolla Price next to the higher non-Dwolla price.

The Dwolla Price feature is a stab at creating rewards, said Jim Van Dyke, president and founder of Javelin Strategy & Research. "It's a big deal on two levels. One is the fact that they are [encouraging merchants] to pass rewards on to the consumers, as obvious as that sounds," he says. "Many of these payments players skip that all together. Dwolla introduces transparency: 'I'm saving 10 dollars.'"

Oglesby agrees that Dwolla Price is another smart move on Dwolla's part. "Getting consumers to choose Dwolla payment in an environment where alternatives exist is a key challenge," he says. "Getting the merchants to help steer transactions towards Dwolla is a 'win-win' scenario (they cut out the payment networks and issuers, and share the savings between the merchant and consumer)."

Dwolla transactions take about two to four days to process, Lampe told Bank Technology News That amount of time could decrease as Dwolla improves its own system. But for now, that could potentially relegate the service to merchants that don't need to immediately get their hands on their customers' money.

In the meantime, Dwolla sees itself, Lampe said, as a conduit for developers to build on top of, hence its latest software patches that will help the company better work with third-party programmers.

"We've been stretching ourselves pretty thin to create value within markets where that value is," he said. "It's been a long journey of self-discovery and we are looking to step up our game."

Dwolla isn't alone in this strategy.

Over the past two years there has been a rush of companies, such as Braintree and Cardspring, focused on simplifying payments, said payments consultant Philip J. Philliou.

"Simplifying payments and taking cost out of the payments ecosystem is the right use of web technologies," he said, in an email. "It is still early but these companies are starting to gain momentum."

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