This article originally appeared on The Next Web
Henry Helgeson is the CEO of Merchant Warehouse.
The US lags the rest of the world in one significant technological area: payments. One reason we’ve fallen behind is the inertia of our legacy payments infrastructure, and the fact that it is more difficult to replace a working system than build one from scratch.
Yet, while many Americans consider alternative payments non-essential, the rest of the world is silently surpassing us. They’re building simpler, more secure commerce networks – and perhaps constructing the rails to leapfrog the U.S. economically in the process.
Ingenious workarounds in areas with major political and infrastructural challenges can serve as a model for the US to advance our payment system, prevent security breaches and conduct business in untapped markets.
Alipay taps a new market in China
The US has long dabbled in e-commerce, but our efforts pale in comparison to China’s alternative payment success story: Alipay (an offshoot of IPO-ready Alibaba.) With this online payment platform, China’s e-commerce sales tripled from 2006 to 2013, surpassing the US with $294 billion in transactions last year. Currently, e-commerce accounts for 7.8 percent of China’s retail sales, and it’s growing rapidly.
In 2008, less than ten percent of the Chinese population had credit cards (as opposed to 78 percent in the US) Alipay recognized that China’s expanding middle class needed an alternative payment method before they would adopt e-commerce en masse.
Alipay’s offerings differ from American e-commerce in two key ways. First, Alipay provides added security by acting as an escrow service between buyer and seller. While unnecessary in the US, where card brands provide dispute resolution services, this system encouraged China’s wary shoppers to trust e-commerce.
Second, Alipay is a full-service payment platform. Far beyond PayPal or a credit card, the Alipay Wallet allows users to top up savings accounts, pay bills and transfer money to others. Thus Alipay has accessed a largely untapped consumer market.
In 2013, Alipay processed $519 billion and currently handles around 50 percent of China’s e-commerce; by contrast, PayPal processes 30 percent of e-commerce transactions in the U.S., and Amazon isn’t expected to reach a 20.6 percent market share until 2016.
M-pesa texts its way to the top in Kenya
Kenya has the highest rate of mobile payment technology adoption in the world. More than 80 percent of the country’s population with access to a cell phone uses it to pay for goods and services. The most popular mobile payment form, M-pesa, is used by over 17 million Kenyans (two-thirds of the adult population) and handles transactions responsible for 31 percent of Kenya’s GDP.
M-pesa was originally designed to make it easier to send money to friends and family members over long distances and rugged terrain. It has since evolved to meet other commercial needs, cutting out much of the friction that once stymiedKenya’s economy.
Here’s how it works: a customer purchases “mobile money,” much like they would cell phone minutes for pay-as-you-go plans. Customers can then text to transfer money to other individuals or businesses. The US has plenty of mobile payments ventures, but none rival M-pesa’s market share in Kenya.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 30 percent of roads are paved, and there are fewer than three landlines per 100 people. M-pesa has succeeded in Kenya because much of the country “leapfrogged” with mobile before traditional telecommunications infrastructure could be built.
Moreover, when conflicts in the region shook public trust in infrastructure, M-pesa enabled storage and transfer of money, avoiding traditional banks’ instability. Today, it’s one of the most popular forms of payment in the nation, offering frictionless payments within a familiar device.
EMV keeps Brazil safe
EMV, a new set of transaction security standards, was trademarked in the 1990s. The technology, a chip embedded in credit and debit cards, is simple but effective. Combined with a PIN or signature, EMV adds protection for customers at the point of sale, making counterfeit or stolen cards difficult to use.
More than 60 countries – and every significant economic region besides the US – have switched to EMV. Brazil, for example, began adopting the technology in early 2003, and it spread rapidly: in 2013, 80 percent of cards in Brazil were EMV. Credit card fraud has since decreased by 80 percent.
As EMV adoption rises and fraud decreases around the world, the risk in the US is growing. In 2012, the US accounted for 47 percent of card fraud around the world, despite only processing 24 percent of payments by volume, causing businesses to lose more than $11 billion. We’re a victim of our own success; we’ve developed a high tolerance for fraud because we catch it early and minimize its impact on consumers.
But fraud is obviously not something to be proud of. To address it, US banks and card companies have agreed to an October 2015 deadline, when liability will transfer from banks to merchants if they haven’t integrated EMV technology.
The US needs to take a stand
We must enter the alternative payments arena in a serious way, and soon. Businesses refusing to adopt new payment technologies are wasting economic opportunities, losing out on the ease of frictionless payments and risking customers’ privacy and financial well-being.
Shifting to alternative payment methods is inevitable for the US, but the worst thing we can do is wait idly for it.
Image credits: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images, EMV