Foursquare’s new deal with American Express will allow AMEX cardholders to save money on purchases at select retailers including Sports Authority and H&M. As important as the deal is, I think the technology is more important.
We’ve heard a lot about NFC lately. Products like Google Wallet can talk to the payments network and transmit your credit card, loyalty program and promotion information.
I’m sure it will happen over time, but the benefits are marginal at best. Yawn.
What’s really exciting is what you could do if you flipped the model and had the payment networks talk to your phone. That’s exactly what foursquare is doing. When you redeem an offer, American Express sends a confirmation to your phone.
The payment network can reach out and touch your phone. That’s huge. That enables a lot of possibilities:
Risk reduction and increased convenience. If you’ve ever been traveling and had a card rejected because it was flagged as suspicious, you know how frustrating this can be. Instead of declining the transaction, it would be routed to your phone where you could authorize it. This also saves a phone call to unblock your account. Fraud reduction, more transaction volume and operations cost reduction. A credit card company’s trifecta.
Online transaction authorization. Similar to above, a notification to your phone could be used as secondary verification of online transactions.
Parental authorization. Parents could provide a restricted prepaid card to children. On every transaction, they could remotely approve or deny it. Some merchants could be automatically authorized. This would be a great addition to American Express’s PASS product line.
Promotions. Offers based on your recent purchases and location could be sent while you’re in a shopping mood. If you just made a purchase at mall, you might get an offer for discounts on dinner and a movie.
Access for the blind. A text-to-speech engine on the phone could provide an overview of the merchant and amount to help the blind.
An application like this also eliminates the two-sided market problem that NFC has. As much as Google would like to have NFC terminals everywhere, that will take a long, long time. Merchants don’t have to do anything to the installed terminal infrastructure to make this happen. It’s all between the backend and your phone. It also works with a much broader base of phones than NFC.
This type of integration also eliminates the need for training retail employees and doing POS integration. These are both significant hurdles to running promotions.
Loopt today announced a product called u-Deals that turns the Groupon model on its head.
Instead of a large team of sales people who go out and sell businesses in anticipation of consumer demand, Loopt is trying to collect the consumer demand and use it to generate merchant interest.
It’s an interesting twist, but it has a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge is cannibalization. People are going to want discounts on places they already frequent. Businesses generally don’t want to offer huge discounts to regulars. If they want to reward someone, they don’t need to pay a hefty cut to a deals provider to do it.
Here are some others:
The places that come to mind to most people are the popular places. Those places typically don’t have an incentive to discount. If you’ve already got a 1-hour wait for tables on a Friday night, why would you lower your prices? That would be silly. I would really love a discount to flour+water, but I’m not getting one.
Groupon and LivingSocial have set unrealistic expectations for people in terms of discounts. Many businesses can’t afford to offer such steep discounts. I would expect that consumers would ask for similar steep discounts and the businesses would refuse.
The businesses that typically need to offer deals are businesses that people haven’t heard of. The deal is a mechanism of creating awareness of a business. Obviously this doesn’t work with the Loopt model — in order to create the deal you have to be aware of it.
Consumers are generally passive and reactive. u-Deals requires consumers to do too much work in exchange for an uncertain payoff. Even if you could get all of your friends excited and wound up about it, there’s a good chance the business doesn’t accept the deal. I don’t want to risk my social capital like that.
The model doesn’t work for many categories. Restaurants don’t generally offer group discounts. (Despite the name, Groupon isn’t a group discount.) It may work for things like amusement parks.
There is a lot of latency. With Groupon and the other daily deal providers, you can use your deal within 1 day of seeing it. With Loopt, you’d have to request a deal, encourage your friends to request it, wait for Loopt sales to close a deal and then redeem it. This could take days, if not weeks.
I stopped in at Radio Shack last week to take advantage of foursquare’s 20% off newbie special on an iPod Touch. (It’s a great deal. 20% off a current generation Apple product is tough to find.)
The clerk I talked to had no idea what I was talking about. He reluctantly brought over the manager. She had no idea what I was talking about. She stared at the offer on the screen and couldn’t figure it out. She tried calling another store. Again, no idea what was going on. Then she called Radio Shack’s POS support line and was on hold for about 20 minutes.
If I were an ordinary customer, I would have been fed up and left. But I like to see how these things play out and consider it market research, so I let it go on. I amused myself as the manager spent her time on hold trying to sell me batteries, extended warranties, screen protectors, armbands and pretty much anything else that was within reach.
I asked if she could just override the system and add the discount. No, store managers don’t have that discount. Finally, she randomly entered promotion codes and figured it out.
Thirty minutes after I entered the store I left with my iPod. During that time she couldn’t help other customers. It was’t a great experience for me, the other customers, the store or foursquare.
Clearly the offer code was not a single use code or she wouldn’t have been able to guess it. Either Radio Shack needs to get much better at training or they need to put POS instructions right on the foursquare offer. (They also need to better staff their POS support desk. No one ever picked up.)
This isn’t limited to foursquare or Radio Shack. I run into this all of the time when trying to redeem mobile offers. My default expectation is that it won’t go smoothly.
That’s one thing that appeals to me about Square’s Card Case and Register. Because the POS system is integrated with loyalty rewards and promotions, here shouldn’t be a disconnect between the offer that I see on my screen and what the merchant sees on hers.
The tip line. A somewhat passive-aggressive solicitation for money. It’s long been the norm at full-service restaurants, but it also appears at many places where I wouldn’t ordinarily tip. If I order and pick up my food at the counter, a tip seems unnecessary. If I pay cash, there is no default expectation of a tip. (Though there might be an easily ignored tip jar somewhere.) But paying by credit card, the tip is closer to an opt out. I have to explicitly draw a line through the tip line and write in a total. I’ll admit to tipping at places I wouldn’t ordinarily tip because of the subtle pressure. Sometimes I’ll pay with cash to avoid the situation.
Changes in payment systems are changing this dynamic. Increasingly, credit card companies aren’t requiring signatures for low-value transactions. With MasterCard’s Quick Payment Service, transactions under $50 can be processed without a signature. It’s faster for the consumer, moves the line quicker, but removes the opportunity to tip on plastic.
Square’s payment service offers a tip option:
This implementation is the equivalent of the physical tip jar: if you go through the normal transaction flow and just sign, there is no tip. You have to explicitly click the box in the upper right corner to add a tip. (I haven’t seen what the tip experience is like with Square’s new Card Case.)
Is that the right experience? It depends on whom you ask.
Square today announced its Register and Card Case products to complement the existing Square reader and smartphone applications. While Square has been focused on the merchant experience, this move expands its role on the consumer side. (Consumers have been able to receive receipts by email or text message when making purchases at Square merchants.)
With the new application, customers will be able to search for nearby Square merchants, see what’s on their menu and view receipts for previous transactions. Customers can also pay right from their mobile phone and the payment is confirmed on the merchant’s iPad.
Merchants will have the ability to accept a payment without swiping a card. They can also keep better track of what they’re selling. A loyalty program allows businesses to reward loyal customers. Unlike check in based systems which involve users to self-report, this system would be harder to cheat.
One open question is whether these transactions will be treated as card present transactions for Square. I expect that Square will charge merchants the swipe rate for these transactions. If they’re paying out the card-not-present rates, this will eat into their margins.
What we’re seeing here is only the beginning. There are a lot of important problems that can be solved with the data that Square will be collecting:
It’s 2 a.m. and I’m hungry. What’s open? This is a problem that search generally handles poorly. Yelp has done the best job of collecting this among anyone I’ve seen. (Google tries, but its data is less comprehensive.) Even when the data are collected, they are often inaccurate. (Holidays, business was slow so we closed early, etc.) The Square Register could contain a virtual Open and Closed indicator that is visible to consumers.
I have a craving for a dosa. Where can I get one? With menu item data, Square could answer that question — at least for its merchants.
I have a receipt, but I can’t remember who I was with. The Square app could allow users to flag tax-related transactions and record notes like who you ate with.
I want to tell someone about a place I ate at, but can’t remember the name. (And want credit.) People are generally bad at remembering place names. Merchants could also offer rewards for new customer referrals, much like online merchants do.
I’m in a hurry and I need an order to go. Consumers could order right from their mobile phones, the order would pop up on the merchant’s screen and the merchant could select an estimated pickup time. For the merchant, this also reduces the risk of nonpayment for phone orders that aren’t picked up.
Updating Web sites is hard. Most local business Web sites I go to are horribly out-of-date. Menu items and pricing can be more than a year old. Hours are often wrong. Maps are hard to find. Square could take the data from the Register system and generate Web pages with dynamic information, including today’s specials and hours. Some card issuers and payment processors have offered Web site creation, but these have mostly been low quality efforts.
I don’t have a mobile presence. Very few local businesses have dedicated mobile sites. At best, you get a hard-to-read version of the main site. At worst, you see sites created by incompetent flash designers who knew nothing about user experience. These render blank on an iPhone. Square-generated mobile Web pages would provide easy access to key info such as location, hours and menus. Google says about 40% of searches on mobile devices are local in nature — as a result, this is becoming increasingly critical.
I don’t have time to enter data multiple times. Square could also generate a PDF that could be printed for in-store menus. Data entered once gets used for POS, paper menus, Web site, mobile site and promotions. This not only saves on work, it eliminates inconsistencies which can cause customer service problems. Getting a bit crazier and thinking further out into the future, a Square app on an Apple TV could show promotions in store.
I want to get people to try new items. Square could use transaction history to entice regular customers to try things on the menu that they haven’t tried before. With promotions, you want to spend your promotion dollars on transactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Paper coupons are dumb in this regard. Say you’ve got a raspberry tart that you think is amazing. You could find all of the customers who haven’t ordered it and send them a promotion.
I want to know what my customers think of me. An email after the fact could prompt users for feedback and generating a net promoter score. It can also be a way of drumming up more business. For example: “Would you recommend us to a friend?” If the customer says, no, you can ask why. If yes, you can ask for friends right then and there. “Whom would like to recommend us to?” The referral can be coded so that the business can thank the original customer for the referral. A Square app could also provide more actionable data than the typical Yelp review — a restaurant would know when they ate, what they ordered, etc. This would make it easier to identify problem employees or dishes.
I want to know how I’m doing compared with other businesses in my area. I charge $3.50 for a slice of pizza. How does that compare with others? How does my revenue compare? Of course, this all needs to be done in a way that protects business anonymity. Data would only be available when there is enough participation so that a single businesses’ information can’t be identified. Participation should be opt in, with the carrot being access to data. The key here is that data needs to be in a meaningful context. I’ve seen many startups that just want to throw data at businesses. That’s not good enough. Square will also need to answer the “So what?” What decisions should I make based on that data?