American Express said businesses wanting to compete in a digital world must be willing to cannibalise themselves to become stronger and more relevant to customers.

“You need to be focused on the customer needs and have a willingness to cannibalise yourself,” said Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express.

Speaking at the NRF Big Show in New York City this week, Chenault said when American Express embarked on digital payments it was cannibalising the traditional card business that it was known for. 

“Card was 90% of our profits, but if we hadn’t have [gone digital] we wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “You have to innovate or you die.”

Chenault  who has been the CEO of American Express for 15 years – even admitted he does not care if card payments disappear from society. “I really don’t care if plastic goes away,” he said during the NRF keynote. 

He said American Express is focussed on being relevant to its customers through all channels. “That’s absolutely critical and we all agree mobile has changed our lives for sure, how do we integrate mobile into everything we are doing?”

American Express has partnered with companies including Uber, Facebook, Amazon and Airbnb to integrate its payment option into the mobile applications. He said if cards do disappear, it is important for the American Express brand to be visible on some of the most significant digital businesses of the time. 

“Look at Uber, it has innovated payments because you don’t even feel like you’re making a payment.”

Chenault also said American Express is sitting on valuable data about spending patterns which are insights the company can use to give customers personalisation and loyalty rewards. 

“We look at the overall commerce experience,” he said. “If all we simply do is facilitate a payment, we become a commodity.”

But Chenault noted the greatest potential for disruption in payments is the same as retail.

“It’s the convergence of online and offline,” he said. “Forrester estimates between 2014-2018 75% of the growth in retail sales will be web influenced, but those sales will take place in brick and mortar stores. Those changes which motivates and influences customers on the purchase path is becoming the holy grail of payments.

“And it’s absolutely critical for people in retail, commerce and payments – we have to understand the interplay of this convergence of online and offline and we have to be relevant there.

Chenault said this convergence of online and offline is not a “either or situation”.

“Steve Jobs helped to redefine parts of the retail experience because of his appreciation and knowledge of the effect of mobile and online. We’ve got to get our people to be far more flexible and modern. If I fight to make sure plastic remains – that will be a mistake, and it’s the same if [retailers] focus on brick and mortar stores.”