Customer payment handling has long been considered a “moment of truth” for retailers, but especially so since the introduction of electronic payments in the store.

We’ve all had the experience of watching our debit or credit cards be authorised at the retailer’s point of sale (PoS) register, and a challenge (or even a re-swipe of the card) can feel as if the clerk is impugning our good name. That’s not the kind of impression that a retailer would want to leave a customer with to remember the shopping experience by. And as my old boss used to say, "we never want a piece of technology to get in the way of taking a payment with someone offers it".

It’s for that reason that the payments part of the PoS process tends to be the most over-engineered step: retailers want to get it right, first time every time. 

Although “payments” is just one aspect of the interaction between retailers and consumers, it’s an important one for retailers to care about again as consumers use their mobile devices more than ever as a part of their shopping experience. And it was clear from attendance at the RBTE sessions on mobile payments that they want to get it right in the new mobile-enabled consumer age. Presentations by PayPal, Visa, Amazon and MasterCard were well attended, and those companies explained their offerings in the context of the mobile-enabled consumer. 

One of the more interesting sessions at the show was the “Innovation Panel Discussion”, with Steve Rothwell, CEO of Eagle Eye Solutions (a company that offers digital coupons/voucher management for both retailer and product multi-retailer campaigns), Kebbie Sebastian, managing director of Penser Consulting (a specialist consulting firm focused on the payments industry), and David Baker, head of payment innovations unit for the UK Cards Association. They were joined by Andrew Rush, head of international product at Elavon, for a discussion chaired by Essential Retail editor Ben Sillitoe – and the question before the panel was, “is mobile payment at a tipping point?”

The answer was a qualified “yes”. Panelists noted that the last five years have seen an acceleration of new payment options, not from the issuing banks, but from acquiring merchants (retailers) and by new intermediaries (for example, Square). But the panelists stressed that although mobile payment capabilities create new value to retailers by virtue of all the rich data that such capabilities creates, there must be new value to the consumer to gain market traction. After all, explained Rothwell, “what’s easier than waving your card or wallet over a contactless reader?” He went on to explain that with all the challenges of a “mobile wallet” (wireless connectivity in the stores, signing on to the network, entering card and personal data into the app, etc.) there has to be something special for consumers before they will put up with the relative complexity of mobile (compared to a card). 

Baker pointed out that mobile’s real value is that it “connects two worlds – the retailer and the consumer”. That position is very similar to the one that we at RSR have taken, which is that mobile is the “glue” that connects the digital and the physical selling environments together into one (hopefully) harmonised shopping experience. In that context, mobile payments are inevitable – because mobile is already helping consumers connect with retailers as they investigate products and services, check prices and reviews, and even make their selections. Why not take it the rest of the way?

And so as retailers are pondering the question “Why mobile payments?”, the real question perhaps is “Why NOT mobile payments?” Once the issues identified in the answer to that question are resolved, consumer acceptance of mobile payment options should happen. And the collective wisdom at RBTE 2014 is that it will happen very soon.

Brian Kilcourse is managing partner of US-based retail research group RSR Research, and is a regular contributor to Essential Retail.