Tokyo Cashless 2020: cashless transaction fees and platforms (Updated)

The tempest in a teacup over Marukame dropping QR Code cashless payments at some restaurant locations turned out to be parent company Toridoll Holdings updating their POS system. QR Code support will return with the same cashless payment lineup supported at all locations.

The brouhaha is a good opportunity to catch up with an issue I have been meaning to blog about for some time: cashless transaction fees. The ever reliable Junya Suzuki did everybody a favor reporting the Toridoll situation with his usual levelheaded expertise. He also puts out a wonderful series called ‘Pay Attention’ that covers Japanese cashless and payment issues with a unique on the ground reporting style.

In a recent installment, “The Cashless Transaction fee paradox” he discusses the complex Japanese cashless transaction fee landscape. Actually it’s complex everywhere because listed transaction fees are not necessarily what merchants end up paying. It’s an ever changing game of negotiation. And it’s a shell game of POS equipment rentals, extra software services and consumable gotchas like paper receipt printer rolls.

As Suzuki san points out there are basic transaction infrastructure processing costs associated with the NTT Data ‘Credit and Finance Information Switching System’ (CAFIS) backbone and gateway. There are newer players such as the SMBC, Visa Japan, GMO co-venture stera payment network that bypass CAFIS altogether. NTT DATA announced a new lower CAFIS fee structure today that reduces processing fees for small transactions and counters the stera move. The lower CAFIS fees should benefit a lot of smaller payment network players.

Let’s make a deal
The real issue is transaction fees. AirPay and other middle range mobile based POS system players like Rakuten Pay and J-Mups all offer similar transactions fees that range between 3.24~3.74%. As Suzuki san explains, this works out to be roughly 0.5~1.0% higher than a cashless transaction in America using Square.

Those fees are not what all merchants end up paying, but real rates are kept secret. Even Suzuki san, who has comprehensively covered the cashless scene for over 10 years, has no hard numbers, just ballpark estimates. In general 3~5% for goods, 5~8% for services. Low margin but large convenience store chains, i.e. merchants with clout, are aggressive and negotiate lower transactions fees with their large sale volumes.

Super low margin businesses like family owned supermarkets get caught in a catch-22 situation where the more cashless is used, the more that transaction fees eat into their margins (razor thin 1% margins for smaller chains). It’s fascinating stuff and you should read the original Japanese article if you have the ability or translation software.

This complexity makes me skeptical of article claims like, “Apple’s arrogance angers Korean card issuers.” The reality is plain old fee negotiation, by any means necessary, to get the upper hand. I suspect the fact that only 30,000 or so Korean merchants out of some 2.8 million are equipped with NFC readers, is the bigger reason for Apple Pay Korea not launching. Nobody wants to buy new POS hardware just for Apple Pay, so it’s back to the negotiation table.

stera all-in-one cashless platform
The stera terminal cashless platform is launching July 6. FNN has a nice overview video of stera and what it hopes to accomplish. All major protocols (EMV, FeliCa, QR) and payment networks are supported in an all-in-one reader. The difference between stera other mid-market solutions is the integration of hardware and software frontend all the way to the GMO internet based transaction backbone and gateway. SMBC and Visa Japan will certainly use stera to promote EMV and Visa Touch, but it’s a smart solution that runs on Android OS so it can be updated and tailored for multiple POS systems. It will be interesting to see what the impact of stera is and how CAFIS based payment solution providers compete with it.