Mobile payments battle brews around small shops in big countries

While developing countries embrace new services, small businesses have incentives to attempt change

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless, ecommerce, mobile commerce

While mobile payments transform financial life in many less developed countries, retailers and payment providers in the U.S. and Europe are still trying to find the right incentives to drive adoption.

The added convenience of mobile payments won't inspire consumers to switch from credit cards in countries where credit cards are widely used, industry observers said at the Mobile Commerce World conference in San Francisco this week. But special offers and services could attract consumers, and small businesses disappointed with current payment systems may be among the first to make the switch, they said.

Financial services built around mobile networks and simple phones are the first form of banking for consumers in many less developed countries and are growing rapidly, according to Bill Gajda, head of global mobile products at Visa. The trend has moved beyond the well-documented success of the M-Pesa service in Kenya, he said.

The bKash service in Bangladesh, one of the fastest-growing mobile payments offerings based on technology from Visa's Fundamo subsidiary, lets consumers put cash into their mobile accounts at small, local merchants and then spend that money at other merchants, pay utility bills, or send it to friends and relatives, Gajda said. In less than two years, bKash has attracted 2.2 million users and is adding 11,000 users per day, he said.

"This is an enormous opportunity to really replace cash and check, with its inconvenience and in many cases ... lack of security in these markets, with a very safe way to make mobile payments," Gajda said.

By contrast, credit cards are so widespread and easy to use in most developed countries that mobile commerce innovations will have a much rougher road to acceptance, Gajda and others at the conference said. For example, NFC (near-field communication), which lets consumers buy things by tapping their phones against a pay terminal, is growing slowly because of the alternatives available, Gajda said.

"The United States is not going to be the lead market for NFC," Gajda said. That's because swiping a magnetic-stripe credit card, which often doesn't even require a signature in the U.S., is quicker even than using chip-and-PIN cards found in Europe, he said.

The difference in ease of use between U.S. and European cards is negligible when all the steps in a transaction are included, said analyst David Schropfer of the Luciano Group consultancy. But richer and poorer countries are worlds apart in the need for mobile commerce, he said.

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