In a move that suggests there is no purchase too small to be paid with plastic, Cinnabon Inc., the purveyor of hot cinnamon rolls in shopping malls across the country, has started accepting credit card payments for pastries that cost as little as a dollar or two.
McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants have begun taking credit cards in recent years and MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A. have been urging them along but Cinnabon may have crossed a new threshold. Visa in particular, as part of its long-declared war on cash and checks, has been pointing out the benefits of credit card acceptance to quick-service food sellers, which the association has placed among the emerging markets that it wants to penetrate further.
Several factors are making it easier and more sensible for retailers like Cinnabon to take credit cards. Newer, faster point of sale terminals can cut transaction times by three-quarters, so that customers sticky rolls do not go cold while they are waiting to pay for them. Visa and MasterCard have lowered interchange rates for merchants that rely more on volume than price, and waived signature requirements on some card payments. And consumers are growing accustomed to using cards at places where they once paid pay cash, like drugstores and supermarkets.
You used to be able to draw a line in the sand there were purchases you made with cash, and purchases you made with a credit card and thats no longer the case, said Marc Schultz, vice president of business development at U.S. Wireless Data, which is installing wireless modems at Cinnabon stores.
One reason consumers are shifting to credit cards is that prices are rising, even at fast-food restaurants. The cost of taking a family of four to McDonalds used be around $8; now its at least $20, Mr. Schultz said. Even when customers have enough cash on hand, they sometimes would rather use credit cards to defer payment or earn rewards points.
Now you get things like miles every time you use it, Mr. Schultz said. Youre going to pull that card out every place you can.
At Cinnabon, which is owned by AFC Enterprises of Atlanta, some independently owned franchises have been accepting credit cards for as much as a year (airport locations for the longest), but long authorization times deterred Cinnabon from taking plastic at its 196 company-operated bakeries. We wanted to do it, said Steve McMahon, chief marketing officer of Cinnabon, but one of the barriers was speed of service, which can mean the kiss of death in our industry.
Conventional wisdom, he said, dictates that customers buying hot buns will not wait in line for 20-second credit card transactions. People in malls are there to shop, not eat, Mr. McMahon said. If its not a real restaurant, they dont want to spend a lot of time waiting for their food.
Market research convinced Cinnabon that customers would wait in line for transactions that last only five seconds, so the company decided to move ahead with the technology. And, after conducting a pilot program in 50 bakeries, Cinnabon concluded that customers who pay by credit card tend to buy more goodies than those who pay by cash. With cash, the average ticket is about $3.50, Mr. McMahon said. With credit cards its more like $8, and during the holidays its more like $10.
Accordingly, Cinnabon hopes more customers will be coaxed into buying Express Packs, which cost $7.50 to $10.50. Mr. McMahon explained that because a Cinnabon is an impulse product (if you smell it and see it, youre going to want to buy it), consumers do not generally buy in bulk. But the ability to purchase by credit card can change their perception of the product from an ephemeral treat to a grocery item. When were in malls, were selling to middle-aged women for immediate consumption, Mr. McMahon said. We need to get more of these packages home to the middle-aged men who can eat them for breakfast.
The technology required may seem as simple a wireless modem that plugs into the point-of-sale terminal and substitutes for a phone connection but, until recently a constellation of rights and patents stymied its development. Because AT&T owns the patent to the phone jacks in point of sale terminals, any designs for plug-in devices had to go through the company. In December 1998, AT&T licensed CellGate Technologies LLC of Boca Raton, Fla., exclusive rights to their patent. This secured an enviable position for CellGate, rendering it the company that could most easily upgrade terminals in the retail wireless market. Now that advantage belongs to U.S. Wireless Data of New York, which acquired CellGate last month.
We simply replace the telephone line with our product, said Paul Levine, who was chief operating officer of CellGate and still works for the company under the auspices of U.S. Wireless Data, though without a new title. And since were on the AT&T side, our only competition is the local exchange carrier, like Bell Atlantic, Southwestern Bell, and so on.
After it got the patent rights, CellGate started cornering the market in fixed-location clients (merchants that rely on phone lines normally sell from one place). Meanwhile, U.S. Wireless Data was selling its services to portable businesses that need wireless terminals to begin with (such as taxis, food deliverers, locksmiths, etc.). Its acquisition of CellGate opened up a second and larger market for its Synapse product, a gateway that basically connects the hardware to the processor to the carrier in a wireless service.
Karen Hochman, vice president of marketing for U.S. Wireless Data, explained the importance of the CellGate acquisition. Because dial-up terminals can still be less expensive than wireless ones, merchants might choose to buy an old terminal plus the CellGate adapter instead of a wireless terminal. In some instances, thats cheaper to do, she said. Without the CellGate modem (called CBF2000, for cheaper, better, faster), U.S. Wireless would not be able to sell its gateway product to fixed-location merchants, Ms. Hochman said. That market, she added, is huge.
We couldnt go into the doughnut shop on the corner and offer them an attractive product, Ms. Hochman said. They would say, What do you want us to do? Throw away our old dial-up terminals and pay $900 for a new one? Go away.
But Mr. Levine said that in addition to cutting transaction times, wireless modems cost merchants about 25% less than the price of the phone services needed to facilitate dial-up terminals. CellGate, however, is not sold directly to merchants, but through merchant-acquirers that mark up the costs.
Technology is not the only onetime deterrent to merchants like Cinnabon that has fallen by the wayside. Formerly, quick-service merchants refused to suffer high interchange rates for purchases that averaged less than $5. But recently, Visa and MasterCard have brought rates down for merchants that specialize in low-ticket sales, said Mary Dees, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based consultancy Creditranz.com. MasterCard and Visa have changed their rates, and theyve allowed certain things to happen, like waiving signatures when transactions fall under a certain dollar amount, she said.
At Cinnabon, no signature is required for transactions under $25, and few Cinnabon sales are above that amount. Even though the company hopes customers will leap from mini-buns to Express packs when paying by credit card, it is staying realistic about the range of growth it can expect. Twenty-five dollars is still a rarity for our brand, Mr. McMahon said.