Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Enrollment - the kiss of death for a new payment method

Tonite I was reading about one of the newest alternative payment players, Moneta and as is my calling, I decided to check it out. I went to the site and although they only have a few merchants functioning, one being Delta Air, I went ahead and enrolled. It was easy enough, the website was well designed, etc. (Note to them - one lame thing is the password challenge questions - they ask you to identify your favorite ____________ which is a bad idea since people's favorites change all the time. Alas, this is a very common mistake.) However, it is not an instantaneous process. They are going to deposit a few small transactions in my checking account which will take 1-2 days and then I am going to have come back and go through a verification process. This is a sound, but not particulary convenient method, to verify that I actually own this checking account.

If I was not a payment geek, I doubt I would go through this effort to enroll, remember yet another username/password and then what is the likelyhood that I will remember to use this method at some point in the future. Delta Air already has my credit card on file and they actively promote their own co-branded American Express card. And, what about my miles/cash back, etc.? Consumers that are concerned about not building up add'l debt can simply use their Visa/MasterCard branded Debit card. And, unless Amazon embraces it (which is unlikely), they are toast.

The inertia any of these new payment methods have to overcome is huge and a multi-step/multi-day enrollment method is one of the many speed bumps. But, with BillmeLater getting acquired for almost $1B by eBay, there will be no shortage of folks trying. One of the beauties of BillMeLater was they figured out how to move the enrollment to the back end, after you already made your purchase. That was brilliant.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Alternative Payment Defined

So what is an alternative payment? Do e-wallets qualify? There are various projections out there that say "alternative payments" will represent n% of all ecommerce payments by "n" date by such well respected research firms such as Javelin Strategy. Unless we define the term, these projections can easily be mis-understood and overstate the actual change underway. Some seem to believe that any payment where the consumer does not directly enter their credit/debit card number into the check-out form qualifies as an "alternative payment". In my opinion, Google Checkout, for example, is not an alternative payment. PayPal transactions that are funded by a Credit Card are not an "alternative payment". BillMeLater and eBillMe are clearly alternative payment. Taking Google Checkout and Credit/Debit card funded PayPal transactions out of the projections would reduce them dramatically.
What do you think?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is a micropayment?

The answer - it depends on who you ask.
My definition is - a payment of $1.00 or less.
I would like to propose a new term (just what we need, right!) - Minipayment.
What is a minipayment? My definition is - a payment of between $1.01 and $5.00.
Then we would have a plain old "payment" which I would define as anything above $5.00.

There has been a lot of attempts to solve the micropayment problem. They go by the names; Digicash, CyberCash, MagnaCash, PepperCoin (all dead and gone) and the latest incarnations; SpareChange, PayByCash, etc. PayPal has toyed around in this area as well but without much success.

The problem is that if the consumer pays by Credit or Signature Debit (see earlier post), the cost of the transaction includes a flat fee of ~.20-.30 plus some % of ~2%. On a $5 transaction run through PayPal's (& now Google Checkout's) standard pricing, the fee works out to be 9%.

The "solution" has been to have the customer fund a larger amount, say $20 (works out to a 4.5% fee if a typical SMB merchant is using PayPal/Google Checkout). The problem with this are; a) the % of consumers willing to commit that larger amount on the hope that they will use it at one or more merchants that support it, b) the economics for the provider and the merchant of providing customer service around these very low value payments and c) for the credit card companies, the % of these transactions that result in disputes at a very high cost. Other solutions are individual game currency, pre-paid cards, mobile payments but each of these have a variety of issues whether it is; utility, accessibility, cost, fraud, etc.

I do not have a magic bullet for this one, I know too much about how all this works and therefore the challenges. I am always intrigued to observe the volume of noise on this issue and the amount of VC money that finds it way to the latest attempt.

p.s. The biggest challenge is not any particular technical issue. If the credit card companies or PayPal wanted to offer a viable solution, they could. It is the Incumbent's Dilemma in spades, however, since in order to price a micropayment service in the realm of what the merchant would desire, it would undermine the pricing models for the higher value payments since the fact is, it costs about the same to process a $1.00 transaction as a $100.00 transaction and at the volumes the big guys are processing, that incremental cost for the next transaction is pretty low. The other guys that are trying to solve it are faced with all the chicken & egg start-up costs whereas the incumbents are already at scale.

Feeback welcome!