For merchants, divining the future of payments — in essence, anticipating what’s next — means looking around corners, thinking about what consumers want, and will want and then laying the technological groundwork ahead of time.
And in an interview with Karen Webster during a recent PYMNTS Masterclass, Amy Parsons, senior vice president of global acceptance at Discover Financial Services and its payments brand, Discover Global Network, said taking the long view means merchants need to change the very way they think about payments.
As she told Webster, payments are no longer just a cost of doing business but can drive top-line growth, if approached strategically and holistically by companies.
“Payments,” she told Webster, “are really a part of your business between the initial ‘point of consideration’ for a consumer and when they actually buy something. Payments are right at that pivotal point of that transaction activity.” Merchants, of course, want to remove any disruption that might keep transactions from being completed.
And for merchants, she said, it’s imperative to give consumers a choice among a range of payment options and to offer real-time payments among those options where available.
Payments have to be established within the experience merchants are trying to create around their brands, Parsons told Webster, so that while consumers are engaging with the brand, payments feel natural and a part of the process.
It used to be the case that bringing consumers and merchants together could be done in what Parsons termed a traditional straight line, where issuers sent cards to consumers and providers sent point-of-sale devices and terminals to merchants.
“These things [the consumer, the technology and the merchant] met in the wild, at the point of sale,” she told Webster, “and operated well together.” Now the commerce landscape has shifted, continued Parsons, and consumers create, live and transact in the digital worlds and the physical realm, across an ecosystem that is curated and controlled.
To get a sense of how omnichannel flows of transactions — and data — have blurred the lines of commerce, she offered the example of big-box retailers that have expanded what can be done on mobile devices.
For those merchant-consumer interactions, she said, in-app payments are just part of a more seamless process. Now, she said, consumers can search for an item, find the store in which it is located, find directions to the store and even pinpoint the aisles and shelves where the item is — with laser precision to speed the transaction along. And, she said, retailers have become adept at featuring other items commonly bought by that consumer, “that happen to be right down the road from you.” It’s a continuum that reinvents the retail experience, she told Webster, and enables transactions at any point along the journey.
Regardless of where consumers are transacting, Parsons said, they expect payments to be speedy, and they expect payments to be secure.
Merchants must use consumer protection and data security as baselines for how they interact with individuals, Parsons said, before they tailor any other parts of the consumer journey, or deploy machine learning and natural language processing to, for example, present consumers with value-added services.
“You want to make sure that consumers feel comfortable with the way you are using their information, that it is something they think is OK,” she said.
The proliferation of multiple channels of engagement and numerous points of attack for fraudsters means merchants navigate an increasingly complex technological landscape.
To bridge the digital and physical retail settings, she said, merchants must seek to create what Parsons termed “an ecosystem of partners.” The ecosystem should be one wherein each partner brings expertise in different products or services — everything from inventory tracking to loyalty programs — and allows the merchant to focus on the end-user experience.
Done well, with the correct ecosystem in place, she said, the merchant “can create a stream-of-consciousness effect around the customers. The channels don’t matter to them, and it’s all about making their lives simpler — and easier.”