If there is a recent fintech innovation that can be compared to sliced bread, it has to be digital wallets. In less than the time that it took for people to start banking online, secure, fast and convenient digital wallets have taken over how people store and use money.
Our physical wallets consist of a mix of cards that confirm our identity, cards issued by financial institutions allowing debit or credit as well as cards that collect loyalty points. A digital wallet seeks to combine all of the above, and then some.
A digital wallet, or an e-wallet as it sometimes called, is a software-based financial account that securely stores users’ payment information and passwords. With this technology, users can quickly complete transactions and pay for them. Digital wallets can be cloud-based or use near-field communications (NFC) technology. When used on mobile phones, they enable smartphone payments. A digital wallet can also be used to store tickets, loyalty cards, and coupon information.
It appears that while digital wallets were already becoming popular, in 2020 their growth – like with that of eCommerce – got another push. Market research firm Apptopia says that mobile app sessions on the leading money remittance apps – such as PayPal, Remitly and Xoom – surged 10.7% in the first two and half months of the year alone.
Digital cash for digital wallets
Before digital wallets, there were contactless stored value cards using RFID and NFC technologies such as the FeliCa cards in Japan, developed by a subsidiary of NTT DoCoMo and Sony. The technology is used by millions of commuters around Asia on rail networks and was used as the basis for NTT DoCoMo’s Osaifu-Keitai, Japan’s de facto mobile payment system.
The idea of digital cash – and the term eCash – however, was floated in a paper in 1983 by researcher David Chaum. Chaum tried to commercialize his concept – named eCash – in a startup that anonymized and encrypted transactions using public key digital signatures. eCash was the basis of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. However, it took until 1989 and the launch of PayPal for the idea of digital wallets to become widespread. Available for both Android and iOS users, PayPal’s relative ease of use has made it the widest used digital wallet globally. Customers have the option of paying with the app, which uses the same process as tap-to-pay options like Apple Pay, or swiping a PayPal Mastercard to make purchases in-store. PayPal also owns Venmo, the popular peer-to-peer payment app.
Technology companies were early into the payments game too. In Asia, communication apps WeChat, LINE, KakaoTalk, and Naver, all have embedded digital wallets. WhatsApp’s version is undergoing trials in India and Brazil first. Samsung Pay can not only be used with NFC but even with traditional magnetic stripe technology. Tech behemoths Google and Apple were later to the game but Google Pay – a combination of Google Wallet and Android Pay – and Apple Pay, supported on iPhones, iPads, Apple Watch, and Macs, are lumbering up to take on the competition. Apple Pay’s two-factor authentication including fingerprint (Touch ID) and Face ID means amounts that can be authorized are higher.
In the US, Walmart Pay uses QR codes – also used by Alipay in China – as opposed to tap-to-pay that relies on NFC technology. This wallet can also be used to organize Walmart gift cards, create shopping lists, store receipts, refill your prescriptions, and even find an item’s location inside your preferred store.
Other players in the market include Cash App (released in 2014 by Square, and can only be accessed with your fingerprint for extra security), and also stores boarding passes, concert and movie tickets, loyalty cards and coupons. The app Due provides invoicing and time tracking but also offers a digital wallet and along with payment processing and banking capacities. They also happen to own the trademark on the word ‘eCash’ first promoted by Chaum.
Effects of and on eCommerce
With a boom in eCommerce this year, retailers need to keep up with their customers’ preferences for digital wallets and include all these options in their checkout. Here are some of the ways that digital wallets will impact the customer journey and the retailers’ balance sheets;
- Customer behavior The companies offering these digital wallets – like the banks before them – have knowledge of their buying behavior in a granular sense.
- Convenience: Not just for the customers who don’t have to open actual wallets, fill out forms or login online, retailers can also conveniently send and receive payments.
- Reduces expenses Transfer fees and charges are much lower than on traditional banks. Some apps even allow retailers to eschew pricey POS systems.
- Improved cash flow Credit card or check clearances can take a lot of time. Mobile eCash payments can speed up the process. Most transfers are completed within 72 hours with some even happening instantly.
- Conversion rates The convenience and speed while using digital wallets is one strategy that can help increase conversion rates and reduce abandoned shopping carts. Coupons, discounts, promotions can be beamed to customers in-store and loyalty points awarded.
- More sales opportunities Since wallets are contained on phones, and most people carry their phones everywhere, location isn’t really a problem anymore. This increases sales opportunities making sales truly omnichannel.
- Security With extra levels of authentication, a digital wallet is much more secure than a credit card.
Digital wallets around the world
In Asia and Africa, where cash was formerly king, vast swathes of the population have sidestepped credit and debit cards to go straight to mobile payments. Alipay, offered by eCommerce giant Alibaba, and started out as an escrow service between eCommerce buyers and sellers is China’s leading third-party payment solution and digital wallet. In 2016, Alipay expanded to Europe to offer Chinese tourists traveling there a way to make in-store payments and receive offers and now has over a billion users worldwide. In India, its equivalent is PayTM. In Africa, and in particular Kenya, Vodafone M-Pesa allows users to deposit, withdraw and transfer funds, pay bills, and purchase mobile operator services.
As eCommerce becomes more commonplace, digital wallets are starting to gain favor with customers and in turn, gain ground from banks. Square, for example, has received conditional approval to open a bank. Recognizing this propensity to transact online and on the phone, banks around the world are working on central bank digital currencies (CBDC) capabilities.
Noting the banking-like features that digital wallets offer, Hong Kong and Singapore regulate digital wallets as stored value facilities. A new bill was tabled earlier this year in the US called the ‘Banking For All Act’ that mandates that all banks that are members of the Federal Reserve open and maintain ‘digital dollar wallets’ for all persons. The unbanked and the underbanked around the globe might fuel the next wave of digital wallets and we will be more digital money to fuel our digital lives.