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March 25, 2013

What's Next in Mobile Payments?

I recently participated in two banking conferences that displayed the full spectrum of strategic options and plans of banks regarding mobile payments. The first event was the annual operations/technology conference of a statewide bankers' association with all the attendees being small- to mid-sized community banks. All these banks currently offer an online banking application to their customers; about half of these have customized their online banking application for mobile device usage. Only one bank indicated they had a mobile payments application currently in operation. I was surprised to find that only a couple other banks planned to offer a mobile payments application within the next 12–18 months.

Later in the day, a panel of four MBA graduate students from a prestigious business school of a private southeastern university gave their views on mobile payments. The objective of this panel was to help the bankers understand the key drivers of this demographic's banking relationships and needs. All four panel members indicated they frequently accessed their banks' online banking services with their mobile devices as well as their laptops and tablets. They also unanimously stated they would switch financial institutions if the banks didn't offer the service or if they began charging a fee for the service. Interestingly, only one panelist used the mobile payments application from his bank, and his usage was infrequent. The reasons the panel members gave for their disinterest in mobile payments included difficulty of use of a mobile phone versus a laptop or tablet for bill payment or little need for the service because they found their existing payment methods to be as or more convenient.

At the Bank Administration Institute's (BAI) Payments Connect 2013 conference the following week, a featured track of the two-and-a-half-day event was the wide range of marketing, operational, risk, and technology issues related to mobile banking and payments. The prognosis for mobile payments couldn't have been more optimistic, with a number of panelists declaring that the tipping point for mobile payments had been realized earlier in the year. They credited the adoption rate for smartphones and other indicators they believed to be key drivers. Of course, we have to realize that many expressing such optimism worked for a company that has a vested interest in the success of mobile payments. However, that optimism was supported by a number of research studies delivered during the conference that concluded that the rate of smartphone penetration, the growing volume of mobile payment transactions, and overall consumer attitudes would translate to successful mobile payments programs.

One of the questions bankers frequently asked during the BAI conference was what a panelist would recommend the bank do regarding their mobile payments strategy. While there were some slight variations, panelists consistently responded that banks should get involved now and try a number of different, small-scale strategies. Several panelists used the gambling analogy of placing a distributed number of bets of small amounts rather than going "all in" with one particular mobile payments scheme. They acknowledged that the technology winner(s) of mobile payments was far from certain at this point, with near field communication, QR codes, and cloud options all in different states of adoption and each with their individual advantages and disadvantages.

The practice of "spreading your bets" is certainly a valid risk management strategy, but how practical is such a strategy for small financial institutions? The large banks have their research-and-development budgets, IT development staff, and other resources that allow them to participate in multiple pilot programs, but smaller institutions do not have such resources. Most would be able to offer only a mobile payments program supported by their core application processing provider.

As with many new payment products in the past, larger banks have led the initial efforts, and the smaller banks followed suit after customer demand for the service became more certain and with the realization that not offer the service would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Could this be the reason many banks, especially the smaller ones, have been sitting on the sidelines for now until the mobile payments picture becomes a bit clearer? Let us know what you think.

David LottBy David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

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