Merchants Embrace Text To Buy As ‘Conversational Commerce’ Alternative

The great digital shift is powering independent retailers — the ones that make up the Main Street economy — to modernize their interactions with consumers, trading the phone and mail order catalog for the text.

In an interview with PYMNTS, Chase Petrey, vice president and general manager of payments at customer messaging and interaction management platform Podium, said the stage is increasingly set for localized commerce to become conversational — meeting consumers where they want to transact, which is not surprisingly, across mobile devices.

The company said Wednesday (Nov. 11) that it had introduced its chargeback guarantee for local businesses as they handle offline purchases through Podium Payments. The company, which says it is used by half of all smartphone users in the U.S., also said that its platform enables consumer financing at checkout and the ability to set recurring payments.

The enhancements to the Podium platform debuts at a time where, according to Petrey, “there’s an expectation and a growing demand that consumers will be able to message with a local business” — and through digital means, get what they want and need, with little friction inherent in the process.

Call it conversational commerce, which Petrey described as being “smack in the middle” of brick and mortar, locally-based commerce and eCommerce.  Major online commerce players are getting into the game. Witness the rise of Google My Business Chat and Apple Business Chat, which lets consumers chat with firms right at the point of the online business profile. (Petrey said that Podium is actually the conduit through which local merchants can receive Apple and Google messages).

The platform, which added payments functionality earlier this year — allows businesses to securely take payments directly through the Podium platform. The company has estimated that it has underpinned more than 17 million interactions reaching roughly 40,000 firms.

Conversational Commerce — By The Text 

Looking ahead at the potential for payments embedded in Podium’s platform technology, Petrey stated that volumes could swell by a multiple of 10 in 2021, with a tailwind in part from the chargeback guarantee.

The greenfield opportunity is significant. By and large, right now, according to Petrey, local commerce happens nearly exclusively on the phone — through phone calls, to be specific, or in person. These purchases are ones that might be termed “considered” transactions, which require some education and research on the part of the consumer — spanning everything from home repair to jewelry, and where people choose to shop locally because they want some conversation beforehand, and want to get the opinions and insight of local sales reps.

Increasingly, consumers are becoming more interested in, and comfortable with, communicating via text messages. Layering in the payments functionality, he said, completes the commerce loop between consumer and merchant. As Petrey told PYMNTS, “having messaging without payments is like having an eCommerce site without a checkout page.”  COVID-19, of course, has hastened the transition, and there’s been a veritable explosion in curbside pickup activity, representing about 15 percent of Podium’s volumes.

“This is where conversational commerce really is the answer because you have the convenience of a digital experience by you have the support of a real person behind it, educating you and helping guide you through the purchase process,” he stated.

In terms of mechanics, he said that merchants could choose between a “freemium” model called Podium Starter, which allows merchants to sign on to the messaging platform, whole being assigned a phone number, whole onboarding onto the payments platform.  An upgrade into Podium’s paid monthly service comes as merchants scale (the firm, as Petrey noted, does its KYC checks in near-real time).

As to the range of transactions — where the company is already at more than 230 percent of its expected volume year to date:

“We had a $100,000 commercial roof transaction go through on our payments platform last month,” Petrey noted, “and in the same month we had a $10 oxtail transaction go through, for a butcher.”

The Context 

Petrey told PYMNTS that the local interactions — the ones done via mail order or the phone (aka MOTO), where card not present transactions take place — have been ripe with friction. On occasion, larger merchants must contend with component purchase fraud, where employees may steal card data. Elsewhere, consumers are leery of reading off their card data, worried about who may be in earshot.

Petrey noted that there’s been a significant spike in mobile wallet usage as Podium’s clients collect from their end customers and one-click payment of invoices using digital services such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

“There’s this immediate need for what we’re doing,” he told PYMNTS, “which is replacing the MOTO transactions.” The target audience, he said, is made up of the “main street” businesses that may be family-owned firms that typically have not been cutting edge or digital first — but who have established relationships with the surrounding communities through the course of decades and even generations.

The verticals seeing the most demand across the Podium platform include retail and healthcare (where consumers and patients can text their way through the checking and delivery processes, transacting from the car).

As Petrey told PYMNTS: “What we’re saying [to merchants] is, ‘Because you have a communication channel open as a sales rep with this consumer, you can still own that sale. You can still nurture them along that journey, but you can then leverage a digital checkout process.’ ”