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Will the Pandemic Change B2B Check Usage?
When I was in college, my first on-campus job was as an assistant in the university's accounting department. One of my responsibilities was to manually collate checks with their associated invoices, stuff them into envelopes, and drop them off in the outgoing mail bin before the 5 p.m. pickup. The entire process was so tedious and time-consuming that I couldn't help but wonder why a technology-focused school was still using outdated accounting systems and making payments using paper checks.
Well, as it turns out, checks are still the go-to form of payment for many businesses, particularly when paying other businesses. The 2019 Electronic Payments Survey by the Association for Financial Professionals found that checks, at 42 percent, were the most popular payment method for business-to-business (B2B) transactions In addition, the Atlanta Fed's latest Check Sample Survey (CSS) , which examined check usage by U.S. consumers and businesses in 2018, showed that the majority of B2B payments were bill payments by both number and value.
While digital payments are rapidly growing in popularity with consumers, the rate of adoption among businesses (specifically for B2B payments) appears slower, primarily because companies are deterred by the complex restructuring involved with digitizing their accounts payable (AP) systems. While it may not make sense for every business to adopt digital AP platforms, there are some benefits—it's less labor-intensive and, even though costs to convert to digital could be substantial, the platforms are faster. Some major global card networks have rolled out automated AP solutions, streamlining the entire B2B bill payment process. The Fed, in collaboration with other stakeholders, is currently working to address issues and barriers that make it challenging for businesses to adopt electronic payments.
Getting rid of paper checks certainly does not mean that B2B check fraud will be totally eliminated, but it is an important first step. According to the 2018 CSS, about 56 percent of the value of fraudulent checks was from B2B bill payments; by number, 14 percent was B2B bill payments. Not only do businesses have an increased need for secure, digital accessibility because of the pandemic, but also digital AP platforms could reduce health risks since employees no longer have to be physically present in the office to process and mail checks.
Although innovating for B2B payment processing began long before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the pandemic will serve as the catalyst that transforms the way businesses transact with other businesses at a much faster rate. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for B2B check usage as some businesses feel pressured by the public health emergency to adopt digital accounts payable systems. Are the days of stuffing envelopes finally coming to an end?