Citigroup Inc. is learning many consumers today do not share its enthusiasm for mobile payments.
Citi, the first major bank to evaluate mobile transfers, has determined that even the people most likely to consider their phones a useful way to send money are still years away from embracing the technology.
The banking company began testing mobile person-to-person transfers in 2008, but quietly shuttered the program in December, concluding that consumers are only now starting to understand the capabilities of their increasingly sophisticated phones.
"The market just isn't ready for it yet," Jeff Semenchuk, a managing director and head of Citi growth ventures, said. "U.S. consumers are now just getting comfortable with using their mobile phone for a lot of things."
For mobile transfers, "the demand is not yet explicit."
Citi is still committed to the concept, and is even an investor in the company that pioneered mobile transfer technology, Obopay Inc. It has also been an early mover in other forms of mobile payments. It has run extensive tests of handsets with built-in contactless payment components that can be used to make purchases at the point of sale — something Semenchuk said is on a "parallel but, I would say, converging" path with P-to-P payments. Citi also has a joint venture, Mobile Money Ventures, with the South Korean wireless carrier SK Telecom Co. Ltd. that could help it gain a foothold in mobile payments overseas.
But, Citi learned, a "massive national scale" will not be reached "overnight," Semenchuk said. "We all wished for that. It didn't happen. That's not necessarily a disappointment because we learned a lot."
Numerous financial companies are offering or developing mobile transfer services, but Aaron McPherson, a research manager for payments at the Framingham, Mass., research firm IDC Financial Insights, agrees that few people are clamoring for such capabilities.
"I realize these are new services," he said, "and maybe next year we'll see a much bigger number, but as yet, we do not have any data that I'm aware of that will give us confidence that this is going to be a volume application."
Semenchuk would not say how many users were attracted to its test of Obopay's transfer technology, or how much money was moved, but he did say it was a statistically significant number.
Semenchuk said that the program provided an important glimpse into what are likely to be the most compelling payment scenarios when the U.S. is more eager for mobile payments.
One key finding: The oft-repeated concept that mobile phones are the ideal way to split a dinner check? That ain't it.
Instead, "the one that really came out and we saw a lot of usage around was parents giving their kids allowance via Obopay," Semenchuk said.
"Up to half" of trial users used Obopay for this purpose, he said; people dividing a restaurant tab were a much smaller minority.
Citi also learned that payments are not, in the minds of consumers, a stand-alone product, he said. The allowance scenario worked because the funds wound up in an account tied to a prepaid card, for example, and consumers who want mobile account access want to do more than just make payments.
Another hurdle was Citi's requirement that at least one of the users have an existing Citi account, which Semenchuk said limited its appeal. For mobile payments to take off, "lots of banks need to participate," he said.
Semenchuk would not predict when Citi would again test such a service, but was certain that it's "when" rather than "if."
"It's inevitable that in the U.S. we're going to see person-to-person mobile payments," he said.
Michael Diamond, the senior vice president of business development at Obopay, said the service will take off when people find ways it will help them. "You have to focus on use cases," he said. "There can't be an attitude of: 'If I build it, they will come.' "
In particular, Obopay's system proved compelling as a means of replacing checks, particularly for small-business owners who did not accept electronic payments, Diamond said.
"They were our salmon who were swimming upstream to find this service," he said. "In a lot of ways, we're in the check replacement business."
Though he said U.S. consumers are ready for mobile transfers now, Diamond conceded that the service would be more effective if it were better integrated with banks' other mobile offerings. And stronger promotion efforts from banks would not hurt, he said.
McPherson said the U.S. is far less equipped for mobile payments than most people assume.
In a survey of 1,008 random U.S. consumers, only 12.5% had a smart phone with a data plan.
Though services like Obopay do not explicitly require smart phones, they increasingly cater to smart phone owners. Obopay launched an app for Apple Inc.'s iPhone in December, and PayPal Inc., a unit of eBay Inc., revamped its iPhone app this week to take advantage of smart phones' features, such as a tap-to-pay service that uses a phone's motion-detection ability.
"The biggest constraint on the market, quite frankly, is the penetration of smart phones," McPherson said.
Even people with more basic phones are not heavy mobile banking users. Just 9.8% of mobile phone owners said they have used text messages to check their balances; 6.4% used the phone's browser; and 2.9% used a downloadable application.
"These are tiny, little numbers," he said.
The situation was even more grim for P-to-P transfers, which just 1.2% of respondents said they had done. "That's basically nothing," McPherson said. "The research tells me that this appeals to a tiny number of early adopters." McPherson expects to publish his findings in a report next week.
George Tubin, a senior research director at the Needham, Mass., research firm TowerGroup Inc., said that while Citi's trial did not demonstrate immediate demand for mobile payments, it was important to study the habits of early adopters.
The allowance scenario seems realistic, he said, since it allows parents to respond to the immediate needs of their kids.
Tubin also agreed with Citi's assessment that tying mobile payments to a specific bank is too restrictive, especially for a company like Citi that has a relatively small retail presence.
"Full P-to-P benefits don't happen until it truly is P-to-P, whoever the person happens to be and wherever they happen to bank," he said.
Banks just need to get through this experimental stage, he said.
"A lot of people believe that we will have very robust P-to-P mobile capabilities in the future, but the question is how will we get there and what's the path we are going to take?" he said.