Cashless Society

Mobile payment providers entice shoppers with deals

The Google Mobile Wallet app for cardless payments is displayed on a smartphone screen at the Mobile World Congress.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

To save this holiday season, it may pay to pull out your phone instead of your cash. But don't plan to leave your wallet at home just yet.

As mobile wallet technologies race to attract consumers, more platforms—and their retail partnersare using incentives to get shoppers to pay without pulling out cash or a credit card. "Most companies are offering some kind of incentive to get them to download the app on their phone and use it," said Jeff Berry, senior director of research and development for LoyaltyOne.

For example, users of Softcard (a mobile wallet platform that's a joint venture of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon) can get credits of up to $30 just for using the technology, as well as exclusive deals with retailers including Toys 'R Us, Van Heusen and Neiman Marcus Last Call. Wells Fargo is currently offering $20 credits for Apple Pay users who try the technology. Restaurants on mobile payment app Dash offer incentives like a free beer or slice of cheesecake. And Starbucks' popular mobile app—which the company recently said generates 7 million mobile payments a week—integrates loyalty rewards and personalized deals.

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Those deals can have a big impact on our behavior. "Payments basically goes up an order of fivefold when the consumer is engaged with offers and loyalty," said Jim Stapleton, vice president of sales for Softcard.

Still, while they are attractive, mobile payments aren't a foolproof savings strategy. "All of these are relatively new," said Michelle Madhok, chief executive of deal site "It's one of many ways to get deals." Shoppers might have more success finding offers (or may find more lucrative offers) through a retailer's loyalty app, a mobile coupon app such as Coupon Sherpa or RetailMeNot, or a check-in app like ShopKick.

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The other issue? Even if you can find a mobile payment deal, you might not have an opportunity to use it. "Right now, the percentage of people who pay with their phone is miniscule," said Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers. Fewer than 2 percent of retailers are equipped with contactless terminals, according to a 2013 Juniper Research white paper. By their estimate, less than 1 percent of the contactless-compatible cards issued are actually used for that kind of payment.

That's likely to change over the next year as retailers move to new point-of-sale terminals to accommodate more secure chip-and-PIN cards, Stapleton said. (After October 2015, those who don't may shoulder the financial burden of fraudulent charges stemming from data breaches, a cost banks are currently responsible for.) Apple Pay may also be a catalyst in encouraging retailers to adopt contactless payments. "It is literally the rising tide," he said.

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Even then, pulling out your phone may not be the most reliable route to savings. As mobile wallets become routine for shoppers, the deals are likely to disappear. "Good marketers will not continue to offer incentives through there because, financially, it won't make sense," said Berry. Accepting a mobile payment isn't any cheaper for retailers. Future promotions are more likely to be tied to loyalty programs or other shopper behaviors, rather than a deal just for choosing a payment method.