Consumer Brands, Retail and Healthcare:
The Path to a Cashless Society
by Hans Van Den Bosch, Global Sector Head Consumer Brands, Retail and Healthcare, Global Liquidity and Cash Management, HSBC
A cashless society is like a paperless office: often promised, but never quite achieved. Nevertheless, progress is being made in reducing cash transactions in the retail market, as major retailers explore new payment channels for their customers. However, as Hans Van Den Bosch, Global Sector Head, Consumer Brands, Retail & Healthcare, Global Liquidity and Cash Management at HSBC explains, a number of fundamental issues still need to be addressed to smooth the path to a cashless society.
While cashless payments have made progress in recent years, the quality of the underlying payment infrastructure and the capabilities of banks are delaying further progress. Irrespective of the interface used - cards, mobile phones, electronic wallets or any other method - a payment still has to be moved. This transfer of value is immediate with physical cash: a note or coin is handed over in exchange for merchandise or a service. The transfer of value may not be so immediate with other payment methods: much depends upon the infrastructure that actually moves the funds. In some countries, electronic payment systems are now available that can transfer funds in real or near real time (often referred to as ‘instant payment systems’), but elsewhere this process may take anything from overnight to several days. The good news is that this situation is gradually improving, with a growing number of countries committing to, or already building, instant payment systems.
As these new instant payment systems are rolled out, barriers to the introduction of new retail payment methods fall. As they will be able to rely upon the underlying payment systems to transfer value, any new way of initiating a payment will be as immediate as physical cash, but without the physical security risks and physical handling costs, as well as being less costly than other electronic payment methods, such as credit cards. In some cases, new payment mechanisms may also leverage existing electronic methods, such as linking mobile phones, electronic watches or other technology to payment cards. Nevertheless, one of the critical enablers of this progress will be the quality and speed of the underlying mechanism for moving payments.
Network and credibility
Another critical enabler is the choice of entity that puts/collects payments in/out of the underlying mechanism. A retail customer may choose a particular payment medium on the grounds of convenience (or something else), but ultimately they will still want to be certain that any payment will be completed securely. A retailer may choose to offer a range of retail payment options, but again will want to be certain that they will receive the remittance quickly, reliably and securely. At both ends of the transaction, the third party handling the transaction will typically be a bank. Therefore, apart from the speed and reliability of the clearing system used, the speed and reliability of the banks involved is also crucial.
However, more sophisticated and multinational retailers are looking for considerably more. With potentially millions of transactions per day being processed globally across their retail channels in multiple currencies, they need to maximise consistency of data format and of course Straight Through Processing (STP). This no longer just applies to the basic payment information, but also includes customer-specific data that are valuable for developing the relationship.
Their bank will therefore be expected to deliver consistent data that can be easily processed by corporate Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, irrespective of location and currency. As a result, a bank’s physical network (including its access to local clearing systems) is an important selection factor, as are its integration capabilities with ERP and treasury management systems.
While new technology may not be quite as disruptive in the payments space in other areas (such as hotels or taxis), it is evident that the rise of financial technology companies (‘fintechs’) is already having an impact. Fintechs do not want to make the huge investment in infrastructure that banks have made, but they still need access to that infrastructure so their new solutions can function, so they have been looking to strike partnerships with banks to achieve this.
Apart from infrastructure, fintechs have other important expectations of their partner banks, such as credibility. Any major retailer will want to know if there is a credible bank partnering with the provider of any new payment medium. If so, then the fact that such a bank is prepared to partner with the provider provides a measure of reflected credibility. In addition, providers of new payment methods will want to maximise the international coverage of their technology, especially if they are pitching to multinational retail brand, which makes the scale and functionality of the bank’s network an essential consideration. A final point for the provider is the bank’s technological capabilities. Does it invest heavily in technology? Is it open to partnering with technology providers?
New cashless solutions
Recent years have seen many developments in the cashless payment space. Card payments and physical cash will probably remain dominant in some countries, but decline in popularity versus solutions such as digital wallets, with companies such as Alipay making major inroads in China and elsewhere alongside US providers such Apple Pay.
From a retailer’s perspective, these new payment mechanisms offer some interesting opportunities. Often, they are not device-specific. For instance, Apple Pay can be used across a range of Apple hardware .
This enables retailers to reach a broader range of users via single provider. A further opportunity arises from the fact that many of these devices incorporate functionality such as near field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth low energy (BLE). These both enable more direct engagement with customers. For instance, in the case of BLE, when a customer is picked up by an in-store BLE beacon, the retailer can potentially identify the customer and offer them targeted promotions. This can provide additional valuable business data, such as customer take up of offers and changing spending patterns. However, as mentioned above, much depends upon how effi ciently such data can be transmitted and normalised for analysis.
 Exact Apple Pay functionality available varies across devices. https://www.apple.com/apple-pay/