Payments Innovation

Feb. 24: The Unsung History Book Hero

Some days will always be remembered — Oct. 29, 1929, for example (a.k.a. the Wall Street Crash of 1929). Others are symbolic for other reasons. Everyone may not know that the Ides of March means March 15, but there are very few English speakers who don’t know that one ought to beware of them.

Feb. 24 is not that memorable, but it really should be. It’s historically been a big day for big deals to sneak quietly onto the scene.

If you live in a city right now, for example, or if you are working in any sort of skyscraper, you have the steam shovel to thank for that. It is the invention most credited with creating modern American urban landscapes because it made it possible to easily dig a foundation, the Panama Canal and the intercontinental railroad. And, it was patented by William Ostig on Feb. 24, 1839.

The first transcontinental flight in the U.S. was completed on Feb. 24, 1921, in about 24 hours of flying time. Experts at the time said that while it was an interesting accomplishment, it was terribly unlikely that anyone would ever commercially fly across America.

Experts then, as now, do not always get things right.

Speaking of things that are wrong, fans of parodies and pornography also owe a debt of gratitude to Feb. 24 — this time in 1987. On that day, Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, saw a court unanimously uphold his right to create a parody of a very not-amused Jerry Falwell, no matter how depraved or questionable it might have been.

Even if that isn’t one’s favorite court decision of all time, fans of the Supreme Court also have reason to love Feb. 24. On that day in 1803, the Court ruled in the case of Marbury vs. Madison and asserted the right of judicial review — the ability to review laws in terms of their constitutionality — at the same time. The Constitution does not actually give the Supreme Court the power of judicial review, but it has had it since Feb. 24, 1803.

Feb. 24 has also been the annual calendar ninja for payments and commerce people, sneaking events of later significance into their first major news appearance on that day each year. Don’t believe us? That’s okay. We’ve been poking around the back-catalog to prove it to you.

Let’s hop into the time machine.

2015

Ahhh, the world of February 2015.

Apple Pay was still new, EMV was not yet a thing in the U.S. and if you asked the average American to name a voice-activated personal assistant, he definitely wouldn’t have said Alexa. He might have said Siri, but it’s much more likely he would have said Jarvis from the Iron Man movies.

It was basically a different world. Or was it?

On that day in payments and commerce history, Google made the first (of many) steps and recalibrations on its journey to mobile payments. The milestone of yesteryear? When it bought out the last remains Softcard.

You may not remember Softcard because it was known by another name for most of its existence. Unfortunately, that other name was Isis, which it picked before a terror organization under the same name started beheading people on YouTube. As it turns out, though, not all PR is, in fact, good PR.

You may not remember Isis or Softcard, but it was one of the mobile payment contenders that sort of blew up on the launch pad long before ignition was even a mere whisper. It was a phone carrier-backed mobile wallet, and when Google bought it out, it shuttered it, fired the staff and incorporated it into Google Wallet. Google also went on to launch Android Pay.

Almost three years to the day, Google was back with its latest upgrade when it combined Google Wallet and Android Pay into Google Pay this year. The offering is designed to allow users to transact using credentials linked to their Google accounts, including Gmail, Google Play, YouTube and Chrome. Any “Pay with Google” button lets them check out with any card housed in their any of their Google accounts.

It appears Google is working persistently — and pretty consistently — on building that super wallet.

2016

The EMV transition had happened by February 2016, and retail fraud had already begun the mass move to online that we’re still enjoying today. It was also around then that everyone began wondering if mobile payments were actually going to be about mobile form factors — like the string of “Pays” that launched in 2015 and 2016 — or about apps that made it easier for consumers to order things online and pick them up in store, a la Starbucks.

Stay tuned on that note, because we have big news coming on Monday.

On the lighter side of things, Feb. 24, 2016, was the day Americans decided which retailer it hated most and, for the first time in 10 years, that retailer was not Walmart. It was actually Abercrombie & Fitch, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The report was based on a survey of roughly 9,000 customers who were asked to rank their experiences at the biggest names in U.S. retail.

“Walmart is doing fine business-wise but, at the same time, people really don’t like them,” one of the researchers noted.

Where was everyone feeling the love? Where one might expect: Nordstrom, Wegmans, Amazon and Costco.

Abercrombie & Fitch, hated though it was, was not one of the 90s era teen-retailers that collapsed in the last two years. It is not in great shape, but its doors are still open, aided by the fact that its competitors at places like The Limited, Wet Seal and Pacific Sunwear are no longer in the market.

Walmart is kinder and more friendly, which is ironic, given its size. It has gone from being viewed as a monolithic retailer force to an underdog of sorts. Granted, it’s hard to stick the “underdog” label on a firm with gross sales at nearly half a trillion dollars annually, but the consumers are feeling the love: In 2017, Walmart fell completely out of the top five for most-hated retailers in America.

Amazon is still pretty beloved, Wegmans’ following remains near fanatical and Costco and Nordstrom have had a harder time holding on to consumer affections. Wegmans should watch out, too. Amazon now owns Whole Foods Markets, which competes for the same high-end grocery customer to which Wegmans sells.

Speaking of Amazon…

2017

This was the year Alexa took over, the year it exploded and everyone in tech realized they were either going to have to find a way to get on board with voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) as built by Amazon or build a viable competitor. Both Google and Apple chose to compete, and one of those efforts gives the appearance of being viable so far.

A year ago we were talking about the amazing milestone Alexa had passed: 10,000 skills. It was a “Name That Tune”-style game called “Beat The Intro” that, while it isn’t a big hit these days, managed to put Amazon over the top.

Today, that number of skills has more than doubled to north of 25,000. No official count has been offered since late 2017, and all that we know is that she’s more or less everywhere. She’s in cars, appliances, apps and in lots of hardware, too. As of November 2017, Alexa also comes embedded with payments capacity, thus making her skills easier to monetize.  

That’s something to keep the 20,000 or so Alexa developers busy.

So, is Feb. 24 a day that should live in infamy?

That seems a bit unfair, as many of the advances were actually pretty good. And yet, it also seems unlikely that it will get a holiday to call its own — even though the invention of the steam shovel, judicial review and payments innovations advances are worth more than a footnote on the “This Day In History” list.

So, perhaps a warning less stern than the one for March 15 is in order. Next year, beware the 24th of February instead.

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Our data and analytics team has developed a number of creative methodologies and frameworks that measure and benchmark the innovation that’s reshaping the payments and commerce ecosystem. Check out our April 2019 Unattended Retail Report. 

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