The Payments Ide(a)s Of March

Mid-March has typically heralded change in the world. Just ask the Romans or the blizzard watchers of 2017, beset by snow where green shoots should have budded. And change is a blowin’ in the payments industry too, as movers and shakers discussed at the first day of Innovation Project 2017.

Beware the Ides of March, warned Shakespeare. And indeed, the middle of this month has been nothing if not gusty, but daunted not the gutsy — who trekked by the hundreds to Boston for the opening of PYMNTS’ annual Innovation Project. The winds blew cold, but discussion ran heated with ideas, writ large and granular, about the future of payments, for the first of two days.

The two words marking the event itself are especially germane for the arena. Innovation, implying the change that is the only constant when it comes to how people and businesses interact and transact. Project, implying the trial and error and collaborative efforts of sharp minds and sometimes sharp elbows that shape an industry that is fluid and dynamic and touches billions of lives daily. 

Noting the half-decade mark of the confab, PYMNTS’ Karen Webster stated that a lot has changed in the interim, right down to the language we use: “Instead of NFP, we are talking about NLP. Instead of PCI, we’re talking AI,” she said. “And instead of Uber, we’re talking about Alexa.”

Noting the Ides of March, the momentous “turning point” of the Roman Empire (and a bit of a bummer for Caesar), Webster stated that several subsets of commerce and payments are likely on the cusp of similar change. From connected commerce to cybersecurity to, well, even cannabis, the future is being written through new technologies, partnerships and regulations that were glimpsed and glimmered not long ago.

If the “who, what, where and how” are constantly changing, it’s worth examining the players, playing fields and rules of play that are shifting right at this very moment.

Jumping right into the first of several fireside chats for the day, Webster sat with Tony Fadell, CEO and founder at Nest Labs, who you might know as one of the driving forces behind the creation of the iPod and the iPhone. 

The subject, titled, “The Future of Commerce, Unveiled,” may have been an ambitious one in scope, but the conversation was ambitious as well. Changing the way people interact with everyday devices, and the way those devices change right alongside, is no small task. But for product after product, and activity after activity, the key to success and the consumer embrace lies in clearing friction, even if that friction is old hat. Consumers must shed the habitual, Fadell said, and take off their blinders. And companies must be judicious in how they approach commerce and technology: “Just because something can be connected, doesn’t mean that it should,” he said. “At the highest level, consumer interaction with commerce, with tangible items or services, should offer a level of control, indeed a ‘super power they never had before,’ and one that [is] tantamount to an eye-opening experience.”

In a series of successive panel discussions that included Fadell, Webster and a series of other executives — including Jim McCarthy, EVP and global head of innovation at Visa, Prof. Jason Mars, CEO at Clinc and Peter Bell, senior advisor, Highland Capital Partners — the conversation skewed to high-level trends. One panelist noted that the deluge of data challenges firms in retail and financial services to make sense of it all, with security and speed, of course, as key concerns right alongside the discovery of actionable insights.

Then, amid all that consumer data, comes the debate over who owns said data. A Bill of Rights is coming for the consumer, delineating what the parameters of data ownership might be. And, as Fadell stated, corporate manifestos, which detail how data will be collected, how it will be used and for what purpose, “in plain English,” can put consumers at ease. Concurred Mars, “data can be a burden for business” in that they have to collect it, deal with it, organize it and simplify complexity, all while creating trustworthy narratives as to just what they are doing. 

‘Speaking’ of Context…

Data in its proper context was one topic of conversation. What about conversation and context, taken together? In a fireside chat with PYMNTS’ Webster, featuring Patrick Gauthier, vice president, External Payments at Amazon, the duo gave voice to where voice may be headed in terms of commerce, and, of course, the consensus lies with change. Voice may be coming into its own in tandem with apps that can help facilitate payments and, as he put it, “move beyond the buy button.” You can read a bit more about Gauthier’s thoughts on the subject here.

At its best, technology can help speed transactions but also lead to an improved customer and business experience. In a separate fireside discussion, Webster sat down with Seth Priebatsch, chief ninja at LevelUp. You’ve no doubt heard of mobile ordering ahead, and it’s not just a Starbucks phenomenon. The executive noted that restaurants employing the mobile solution can cut down on costs by up to 30 percent on orders prepared ahead. 

In addition, he told PYMNTS, the uptake of ordering ahead as a concept, industry-wide, has been growing by leaps and bounds, deployed at 50,000 locations across the U.S. in 2015, 180,000 locations in 2016, and likely to scale to more than 300,000 locations by the end of this year. Over the next 24 months, he said, mobile ordering may be pervasive enough that it tips over to a majority of orders industry-wide.

We mentioned the players may be changing, and the rules of the game might be changing, but there’s a new playing field, too — in China. The incremental consumer in the most populous nation is a boon for merchants, should the merchants be prepared for the boon. A fireside chat with an executive about as close to the ground as can be in that situation revealed that the U.S. may be fertile ground for spending, but flexibility is key across cash, cards and even checks.  

The afternoon faded — and might it be said the blizzard became a memory? — and the debates wore on, in pockets of discussion separate from the fireside chats (would that there had been an actual fireplace!) and panels. 

Perhaps that’s where innovation may be fomenting at this very moment. Stay tuned for dispatches from Day 2.