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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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June 8, 2020

Are Contactless Cards Having Their Moment?

This could be the moment Doug King has been waiting for. In February 2017, Doug blogged, "Wouldn't it be nice to tap and pay?" Back then, he reported his disappointment at not being able to use his "cool" card with contactless functionality. Today, my favorite consumer advice websiteOff-site link is calling contactless payments "the wave of the future." And according to VisaOff-site link, 31 million Americans tapped a Visa contactless card or digital wallet at the point of sale in March 2020, up from 25 million in November 2019. MasterCard projects that approximately 70 percent of its U.S. customers will have contactless cards by the end of 2022.

Dave Lott wrote last year that the speed of contactless card payments could make them as desirable—if not more desirable—than mobile payments. As Dave pointed out, "consumer payments is largely a total sum environment," so the rise of contactless could cannibalize other forms of payments like mobile. Continuing this line of thinking, I have been wondering if any rise in contactless card use could have an impact on the use of cash.


"Protect yourself while shoppingOff-site link," advises the Centers for Disease Control. "If possible, use touchless payment (pay without touching money, a card, or a keypad)."

Until a few months ago, the answer was clear: probably not much of an impact. Let's take a look at consumer behavior and survey responses in the pre-coronavirus environment.

  • First, an April 2020 paperOff-site link examined the behavior of 21,000 Swiss cardholders between 2016 and 2018. In the aftermath of receiving a contactless debit card, the Swiss cardholders increased their use of debit cards overall, especially for small-value payments. But the increase among the Swiss consumers was small. Most of the increase occurred among people who already were using their debit cards to pay. And Swiss account holders who used cash a lot—the researchers call them "cash lovers"—didn't change behavior. The researchers report that the average effect of receiving a contactless card was "underwhelming."
  • Second, in response to a hypothetical question in fall 2019 Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link, U.S. consumers reported they would likely in the future use contactless cards to pay at grocery stores, gas stations, and department stores—payees with a high proportion of card payments already. In other words, consumers would not change their choice of payment instrument; rather, they would change their choice of authorization method (tapping instead of dipping a card). Again, underwhelming when we think about any potential impact on cash.

But that was then. In spring 2020, the future is murkier. Do you think consumers' ideas about and use of contactless cards would be different today?

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