by Jonathan Hassell

What CIOs need to know about digital payments

Aug 25, 2015
E-commerce SoftwarePayment Systems

As digital payments become not only accepted but demanded by customers, the lack of adoption by businesses could cause some friction in the marketplace. Hereu2019s why.

Paper checks are so last-century. According to a survey by Blackhawk Network Shopper, digital payments are on the rise and consumers are frustrated when their money does not move at the speed they want. And the impending move to chip-and-pin credit cards by retailers nationwide – which is sure to cause confusion and frustration and longer lines at stores – could give an even bigger boost to so-called mobile wallet systems like Apple Pay, Google Pay and others.

But it isn’t just consumers who are disappointed: Even developers are up in arms about trying to get online marketplaces working with banks and other financial institutions. For proof, look no further than the increase in popularity of the payments startup Stripe, which recently raised funding at a valuation of over $1 billion dollars – and it all started because two brothers were fed up trying to code solutions with their bank’s existing merchant account offerings. Ultimately, they decided to create their own payments infrastructure and financial engine which lets developers anywhere process credit and debit card payments simply by calling an API and getting the money in their account the next day.

It’s clear there’s a pain point around payments … and moving transactions to electronic platforms is the way to alleviate that, albeit with its own set of challenges and roadmaps. Ultimately, the future of digital payments revolves around some key trends. Here are the important points you should be watching for.

Digital payments should be instantaneous

The financial infrastructure of the U.S. is still largely mired in the old era of checks crossing the country via air mail to clear at local Federal Reserve banks and massive mainframes batching money movements once or twice a day. As a result, inexpensive, cost-efficient payments can take at least 24 hours to process, if not more. Wire transfers are generally confirmed and instan but expensive in terms of banking costs. Digital payments of the future should be near-instantaneous – money you send should arrive at its destination in minutes, should be confirmed and not at risk of being returned, and should not have delays in funds availability or posting. Financial institutions claim one- or two-day delays help keep a lid on fraudulent transfers, but there are better ways to vet transactional integrity and reputation instantly in today’s market.

[Related slideshow: The state of mobile payments in 2015]

In a world where we’re all connected to each other all the time, there’s no excuse for electronic cash or credit taking more than a minute or two to settle. The United Kingdom and other countries have done it, so it clearly can be done. In the U.S., we are just too slow. As CIOs, you should be looking to embrace ways of making confirmed instant payments, and looking to develop solutions and products that move the entire industry in this direction. Square Cash is one product that attempts to use guaranteed debit networks to transmit money nearly instantaneously. True innovation is required in this space and frankly pressure needs to be put on banks to get up to speed here.

Digital payments should be mobile

The industry has two big canaries in the coal mine on the digital payments front. In 2014, Starbucks announced that more than 14 percent of its in store transactions were processed over its mobile apps on the iOS and Android platforms based on its stored value gift cards. In 2015 Starbucks launched mobile ordering and expects that percentage of mobile based transactions to increase to 20 percent.

This is a phenomenon that will not go away – witness Apple Pay, the mobile wallet service that works with iPhones (and to some extent iPads as well), which is beginning to gain some traction. Mobile payments are here to stay and in 2016 and beyond, we’ll see consumers increasingly eschew traditional card payments and use their mobile devices for quick transactions because of convenience. After all, the phone is something most people always have with them – during a workout, on the way out the door, in the car. This is less important for business-to-business enterprises, of course. But if the consumer is in any way involved, accepting mobile payments should be a part of your plan.

Digital payments should be secure

The huge losses of the Home Depot and Target payment breaches have highlighted the need for both better fraud protection as well as better accountability when fraud takes place. Who eats the loss? Who is left holding the bag at the end of the day? Increasingly, merchants and cardholders are being asked to be responsible for fraud losses, at least to a certain extent. This is manifesting in two different ways. From the merchant’s perspective, Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance audits are on the rise, and more scrutiny is being given toward secure, segregated and separate networks for point of sale and card data (i.e., separate from production networks). The compliance expense for this is borne largely by the merchant, both initially and on an ongoing basis.

[Related: Criminals attempt 25 million payments and logins a month]

From the cardholder’s perspective, the switch to chip and PIN or chip and signature cards away from the old magnetic stripe swipe cards means that the cardholder bears the brunt of the responsibility in proving that he or she did not make fraudulent charges. CIOs should be looking to find solutions to keep the integrity of money movement high – whether that means scoring transactions in real time, allowing data marts and machine learning to provide some gatekeeping function for the parties in a transaction, or coming up with increasingly secure but convenient ways to exchange payment information.

Digital payments should support micro-transactions

Micro-transactions typically are payments for amounts less than, say, 10 cents. Applied to just one industry – media outlets, for instance – small digital payments could be transformative, if not the only way to survive. Mid- or lower-tier content publishers and websites that may have small but dedicated audiences struggle to survive (let alone expand) because they can’t offer the minimum thresholds that major advertisers demand.

Currently, processing fees are such that it makes little sense to accept credit cards for payments under 50 cents, and that’s probably too high a price to pay for content by the page. If there were a simple mechanism where a reader could toss a nickel or a dime to a page creator, we would see valuable content springing up all over the Web – an explosion of it, in fact. Just as microcredit has enabled third world farmers and villages to improve their quality of life, micropayments should allow a new generation of content not supported by advertising to emerge.