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September 9, 2019

What the Most Convenient Food Tells Us about Payments

I asked some friends to describe their most convenient food. The range of answers tells us how we think about convenience.

Some people think convenience implies flexibility:

  • "Can be paired with peanut butter and even make a sandwich."
  • "I can put it on a cracker, a slice of bread, or just eat it."

Some say convenience is situational:

  • "Do you mean at home or in the car?"
  • "It's portable."
  • "Everyone in the family eats it, too."

Most say convenience means labor-free:

  • "You can pick it up and eat right away."
  • "All I have to do is eat it."
  • "You need no tool."
  • "Doesn't require any prep or even need washing."

This bunch of reasons mostly adds up to...drumroll, please...a banana (five votes of 11) or other fruit (two for apple). Other colleagues chose different foods (delivery pizza, candy bar, pasta, cheese) but often gave the same reasons as those who favored the fruits. That shows that convenience can be a slippery concept.

This is also the case when we talk about convenience and payments. The Survey of Consumer Payment Choice defines convenience as a mix of qualities: "speed, control over payment timing, ease of use, effort to carry, ability to keep or store." It's not just one factor that appeals. This question conforms to Merriam-Webster's definition of the term, which highlights "fitness" and "suitability."

The survey asks consumers to rate the convenience of payment instruments on a five-point scale. The payment instruments that are rated include cash, paper checks, debit cards, prepaid cards, credit cards, online banking bill payments, and bank account number payment (that is, when you provide your bank's routing number and your account number at a third-party website). From the collected responses a relative ranking is then calculated.

In every year from 2010 through 2018, debit cards and credit cards traded the top convenience ranking back and forth. Cash ranked third for convenience in all those years.

This ranking is important. Research shows that assessments of characteristics like convenience, setup, record keeping, and security matter for a consumer's choice to own a payment instrument or for his or her decision to use it. When we talk about "frictionless" payments, aren't we talking about convenience? Flexible, works anywhere, labor free—just like a banana.

In a New York Times opinion piece titled "The Tyranny of Convenience," Columbia professor Tim Wu wrote that "[p]articularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance." For the tech-related payment industry, I agree. Doug King recently wrote about the dominance of payment cards. Here's another indicator that cards, like bananas, are a long-lasting favorite.

The latest data from the Survey of Consumer Payment Choice provide detail on these rankings (Table 14 in the report).