Can A Show About Nothing Teach One (Almost) Everything They Need To Know About Payments?

Sometimes it rains on the fourth of July and the only thing to do is binge watch Seinfeld. However, in the hands of MPD CEO Karen Webster, the show famously about nothing is so much more than something to do in lieu of fireworks. This week Seinfeld is also your guide to the payments industry–where enthusiasm for disruption is looms large. When it comes to really changing how people pay? Sorry, but more likely than not it’s gonna be “No Soup For You.”

I don’t think that anyone would dispute the fact that change in payments happens slowly, not because we don’t want things to change but because so many people have to change sort of at the same time for change to occur. The result is that it seems like we talk about the same things forever. Take mobile payments. Haven’t we been talking about it for an eternity already and we’re still sort of nowhere really? It made me wonder if payments is really the show about nothing.

Wait, wasn’t there actually a show about nothing?

Ah, yes, that was Seinfeld! No wonder I had that thought. Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Seinfeld. When Seinfeld aired people were paying at retail stories using mag stripe cards.  And we still are. See, I told you the parallels here are striking!

Since the Fourth of July day was a rainout here in Boston, I figured there was no better way to spend my time than seeing if I could develop more insights into payments from many memorable Seinfeld episodes and quotes. Tell me how I did and feel free to suggest more parallels.

There was George, pretending he was a marine biologist, going out to rescue a whale in distress (Kramer, trying out a set of golf clubs had managed to get a hole in one in the whale’s blowhole as it transpired.  See everything’s connected here.)  George said, The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. This made me think about EMV coming to the retailers’ rescue after the Target breach. The hole in one was a lucky break for Kramer. The breach is, as many in the industry have said, a lucky break for EMV in the US.

Speaking of which, now, That’s a shame. 

Yes, I should stop picking on Google Wallet but it’s simply irresistible. I actually think they did the right thing by pivoting and reshuffling their team.  They’re still trying to convince people they’re pretty powerful players here though. But, what of course comes to mind after reflecting on their retrenchment are the memorable words of George, fresh from his swim at the pool, who said to his new date, who surprised him changing, There was shrinkage!

Now, really, as most of you know, I’m not easily impressed. In fact, when I heard Jeff Bezos’s sales pitch for the Amazon Mobile Fire, all I could think of was Yada, Yada, Yada.  There’s just no way this one is going to, well, catch “Fire” since who’s going to give up all the apps on their iPhones and Android phones just to help Amazon sell more stuff? Why didn’t they just use regular Android instead of making it incompatible? And as more sellers maneuver their way out of Amazon Prime, giving it away for free doesn’t seem like much of a big deal.

 Speaking of Amazon, they must be worrying a little bit about Alibaba which is about ready to do its IPO. Was it Kramer or Jack Ma who said, first, Retail is for suckers?

 A memorable line on Seinfeld was Jerry’s greeting to the very large annoying postman: Hello Newman.  You have to hear the tone (which you can do by clicking here).  Please click on that and tell me if that tone and style of greeting doesn’t fit any one of the following payment scenarios: Banks greeting the CFPB examiners, retailers seeing their Visa and MasterCard reps, and anyone from Isis meeting me anywhere.

Ok, back to EMV.  I heard from my reliable sources that the Brits are really taking to contactless cards now because of chip and pin.  It apparently takes so long—or at least it seems that way to patient shoppers—to stick the card in, type in the pin, take the card out, that anything that will save them the hassle they’ll do.  Then someone who will remain nameless, with a stake in EMV, told me the same thing. The theory here is that consumers in the US  will hate this technology so much they’ll leap at the chance to DO ANYTHING else, including using NFC and merchants will turn those puppies on like there’s no tomorrow.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

 Although when I think about all the time it will take for consumers to do EMV at checkout I can’t help but be reminded of what Jerry said to Elaine about spending time with his folks in Florida: I mean, when you subtract out showers and meals, it’s like 20 minutes.

A year ago the banks and the Fed didn’t have such a great day in court.  A certain Judge threw the book at them, told the Fed they were kowtowing to the banks and had ignored Congress and that they better tell him how they were going to drop interchange fees like a stone.  The banks and the Fed must have felt like George when Elaine discouraged Kramer from using George as an eyewitness since He couldn’t tell an apple from an onion.


The judge in the interchange fee settlement case told the merchants who wanted to continue the lawsuit rather than settling to take the money, go home, be happy since you are probably going to lose (ok, I’m paraphrasing here).  Or, in the words of the Soup Nazi, No Soup for You!   Everyone knows that you get on the wrong side of the Soup Nazi and you not only left his establishment hungry but got humiliated in front of everyone else in line.  And the same line applies to Putin’s take on MasterCard and Visa wanting to do business in Russia. One slight modification though, there’s soup, it just costs a lot more to make and serve.

And then who could forget the Mt. Gox collapse earlier this year.  Mysterious hackers from around the world stole hundreds of millions of dollars of worth of bitcoins right from under their noses, or so they said. Sort of calls to mind Elaine’s famous line, Maybe the dingos ate your baby! (which could also serve as the defense plea for the Mt Gox CEO.)  

Of course when it comes to the people who seem to pass thru the revolving door of Bitcoin Foundation’s Board of Directors, Jerry’s wry comment on particularly bad habits seems to fit, Not that there's anything wrong with that! (where that sentiment could apply to money laundering, malfeasance, and allegations of child abuse).

Between Operation Chokepoint, mounting fines, regulations flying left and right, innovators out to eat their lunch, digital wallets aiming to make them invisible, our poor friends in the financial services industry really need to way to calm themselves down, to de-stress.  George’s father had the solution for them which could work for this industry too. Repeat after me: Serenity Now.

I don’t know. This is one crazy industry. People insist Apple’s going with NFC soon, EMV cards are coming to the US just when we all know we should be moving full steam ahead to mobile and the cloud, retailers and networks can’t stop fighting.  Some in this industry who seem completely befuddled by it all are simply retreating, calling to mind the famous scene where Kramer said Jerry, who refused to wear the Puffy Shirt to the wedding, “I just can't be with someone whose life is in complete disarray."

As for me?  Well, unlike Jerry, who said when looking at himself in the Puffy Shirt, I don’t want to be a pirate, I rather enjoy channeling my inner payments pirate when I buck the prevailing payments wisdom and offer new ways of looking at the same issues in payments.

Otherwise, payments would really then be the show about nothing!






About: Accelerating The Real-Time Payments Demand Curve:What Banks Need To Know About What Consumers Want And Need, PYMNTS  examines consumers’ understanding of real-time payments and the methods they use for different types of payments. The report explores consumers’ interest in real-time payments and their willingness to switch to financial institutions that offer such capabilities.

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