A top executive at American Express acknowledged Monday that efforts to persuade consumers to pay with their mobile phones have so far been a failure.
Josh Silverman, Amex's president of consumer products and services, said that mobile wallets have seen "fairly limited adoption."
"I think 'fairly limited' is generous for many of them," he added during remarks at an industry conference in New York.
New York-based Amex has encountered similar problems as other companies that have invested in technology allowing consumers to make contactless payments with their phones.
The problem, according to Silverman, is that today's mobile wallets don't solve a real problem for consumers, because swiping a credit card is not a big imposition. "It's my opinion that the swipe isn't especially broken," he told an audience at the Barclays Global Financial Services Conference in New York.
Because of lackluster adoption by consumers, retailers have not been willing to make expensive investments in the new terminals that are needed to process mobile payments, the Amex executive continued.
"Where the industry has struggled a little bit is the chicken-and-egg thing," said Silverman, who was formerly chief executive officer of Skype.
"I can go to a merchant and have a really neat experience when a card member walks in the door. But the card member is not going to want to download the app and do the work required if it's not going to happen very, very often when they walk into many merchants," he said.
Another reason that adoption of mobile payments has been slow: various companies in the payments chain, including card issuers, merchants and terminal vendors, often are not on the same page.
"They tend to have different ownership structures, their interests are not all aligned, and it's difficult to get any really powerful new value proposition to market unless you can get most, if not all, of those components of the value chain together," Silverman said.
Silverman argued that American Express, which issues credit cards and also owns a card network, is better positioned than some of its competitors to solve that collective-action problem.
He also said that Amex is using the mobile phone to engage more frequently with consumers, and using its Amex Offers product to offer retailer-specific discounts to targeted customers.
"Don't give 50% off to everybody in town," he advised. "Give 50% off to the people who are likely to be your best customers. And they're people who probably live near you, or work near you, who have demonstrated a sustained interest in your category."
Corrected September 8, 2014 at 5:42PM: An earlier version of this story stated that Silverman was referring to Amex mobile wallets when he spoke about "fairly limited adoption." The story has been updated in light of an Amex spokeswoman's assertion that Silverman was referring to mobile wallets across the entire payments industry, rather than Amex mobile wallets solely. The full text of what Silverman said is: "On wallets generally, we have had wallets in the market for quite some time, and there has been fairly limited adoption of those wallets. I think 'fairly limited' is generous for many of them."