Jul 10, 2020
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The Road to Ubiquitous Payments

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What will it take in Emerging Markets?

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift away from cash. Lockdowns have encouraged digital payments in both advanced economies and emerging markets, shifting purchases online via internet shopping or digital wallets. Consumers in advanced economies have welcomed Near-Field Communications (NFC) or ‘contactless’ payments; but, will this technology become mainstream in emerging markets? If not, what will?

Last week, Apple revealed its own Quick Response (QR) code system called App clip codes (see image below), a perfect segue for this newsletter’s inaugural topic — ‘last mile’ (point of sale) digital payments. QR codes are the ultimate blend of accessible technology and interoperability to enable ubiquitous digital payments in the emerging world.

In Europe and the USA, NFC/contactless payments are becoming commonplace while QR codes have yet to reach widespread adoption outside China. Despite these trends, I believe QR codes will become the most adopted form of payment in emerging markets — but not necessarily advanced economies. Here’s a brief look at QR codes and other last-mile payment systems and why I think QR codes will (eventually) win out in emerging markets.

QR Codes

If you’ve ever scanned a barcode, you’re familiar with the idea of a QR-code. They are, in essence, two-dimensional barcodes that store information in a visual pattern.

QR codes are not new technologies. They were first developed in 1994 by a Toyota subsidiary named Denso Wave to help manage components in its ‘just-in-time’ supply chain. Workers could scan QR codes much more quickly than barcodes, hence the name Quick Response.

But it was not until the last decade, when WeChat and Alipay began facilitating digital payments in their apps through QR codes, that these took off. In no time, Chinese consumers gained access to a myriad of services via QR codes: paying bills, registering for events, accessing public services, sharing information, and more. In 2013, the Zhengzhou auto exhibition had a model with a QR code printer on her body that visitors could scan for more information on a car’s specifications 😐🤔

Today, QR codes have plenty of uses that include helping beggars receive funds to their digital wallets, or marking epitaphs on tombstones 😬:

QR codes are so easy to use and accessible that it took me two minutes to produce the one below. Go ahead and give it a go: scan using your phone’s camera (and subscribe if you haven’t 🙏🏻).

Today, more than 50% of Chinese consumers scan QR codes several times a week, far ahead of any other emerging or advanced markets.

Alternatives to QR Codes

For those in the USA and Europe, debit/credit cards and NFC/contactless payments are more mainstream than QR codes. Debit/credit cards are straightforward: a piece of plastic with a magnetic stripe that, when swiped helps initiate a transaction. To pay with credit card you need a card, a terminal to scan it, and a connection to the internet to facilitate the transaction (the underlying payment system is far more complex). NFC technology is often used to replace the process of swiping the card meaning you can merely tap your credit card on the terminal. These days, you don’t even need a physical card. If you have a digital wallet it is much easier to simply tap your phone on a terminal to make a purchase.

Looking Ahead at Digital Payments in Emerging Markets

QR codes and NFC have both seen increased adoption in advanced and emerging markets but neither is yet mainstream.

Regardless of what happens in advanced economies, I feel strongly that QR codes will win out in emerging markets and will become the norm for how the next billion internet users transact.

There are three main reasons for this, which I have (not very creatively) called the 3C’s: cost, compatibility, and consensus.

1) Costs

The vast majority of economic actors in emerging markets are micro-merchants, small enterprises best described as cost-sensitive ‘mom-and-pop’ shops or individual workers, rather than large department stores. In this case, think of a small barbershop in Peru or a boda boda driver (a type of motorcycle taxi) in Uganda. Globally, SMEs account for 90% of businesses and more than 50% of employment. When accepting payments, cost is an important consideration for merchants and that’s why cash is king: reflect on the last time you faced a credit card minimum at a café or bar in Europe or the USA.

QR code payments create fast, and nearly-free payments for small merchants. The World Bank’s CGAP writes:

Transactions using QR codes are cheaper and simpler for both acquirers [payment systems] and merchants. Acquirers benefit from lower operating costs because they do not need to deploy a point-of-sale (POS) terminal for every merchant. Retailers save the POS cost because they can use the smartphone they already own as a QR code payment acceptance terminal; for those without a smartphone, a printout of the merchant’s QR code identifier pasted on the shop’s wall will suffice

Most credit card or ‘contactless’ transactions need some form of merchant terminal to receive the customer’s signal (think of Square’s hardware). That is not the case for QR codes. Customers in effect bring the ‘terminal’ by using their smartphone to scan the merchant’s QR code and their cellular connection to mediate the transaction. It is no surprise then, that some of the biggest names in payments like PayPal have been adding QR compatibility to their platforms while Central Banks in emerging markets like those of Mexico and Brazil are creating payment rails on QR codes.

2) Compatibility

Although several of the newest smartphone models are NFC-compatible, the emerging world is a long way from ubiquitous access to NFC-compatible phones. On the other hand, even a $60 android smartphone — the likes of which are favored by consumers in emerging markets — is capable of scanning QR codes. There is no need to download an app to extract QR codes, it’s as simple at point and scan at the checkout. On top of saving on costs, merchants in small and micro enterprises in emerging markets need only possess a phone, it is likely to be compatible with that of their customers.

3) Consensus

While the notion of merely tapping your phone on a terminal to pay for purchase seems more convenient than scanning a code, it is important to remember the bigger picture. QR codes, unlike credit cards and NFC, are more than a means to enable payments but rather a platform for engaging with brands and the world. As I highlighted earlier, these codes have all sorts of clever and even wacky uses. China, the leader in QR code adoption is practically ‘painted in QR codes’. Beyond China, most of the major social media platforms have come up with QR codes that allow users to follow accounts. Payment systems need to reflect consensus with their ecosystem.

QR code reach has grown 28% between 2018–2019 according to Blue Bite, one of the leading platforms for enabling QR and NFC interactions. QR codes are maturing towards becoming far more present for consumers in advanced and emerging markets.

Most compelling for the adoption of QR payments is the fact that that they are highly customizable and visually appealing. QR codes can easily become part of a brand or product in the same way a logo embodies a brand, but in a way that NFC cannot easily achieve (see below QR codes from Tokyo Disneyland).

Final Thoughts

Both NFC / contactless and QR codes are easy, safe, and convenient means to facilitate transactions. I expect both will see increased adoption globally in the coming years. Yet, I do expect QR codes to fare better in emerging markets because the barriers for merchants to adopt these are much lower than for NFC. It will be interesting to follow how big tech payment solutions like Facebook’s Novi (the digital wallet for Libra) and its recently launched Facebook Pay in Brazil choose to enable and push these technologies and whether the strategy will differ for emerging markets and advanced economies.

Author: Juan Gabriel Delgado Montes

This article originally appeared in the weekly The Next Billion newsletter. Feel free to sign up👈🏻!

The Road to Ubiquitous Payments was originally published in The Capital on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Article Categories:
Emerging Markets · finance · fintech · startup · Venture Capital

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