Japan Cashless X-Day

Anybody care to chart the Japanese cashless transformation?

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over with transaction rates reportedly going back to ‘normal’ (an estimated 1% rise over rebate program rates), JP media outlets report that some smaller merchants might go back to cash to keep profit margins intact. Real transaction rates are always hush-hush but QR payment rates recently revealed in connection with the Japan QR (JPQR) unified code scheme give us an idea what goes on behind the curtain:

NTT Data already lowered basic CAFIS transaction rates in response to the stera payment co-venture from SMBC-Visa Japan-GMO. As the JPQR transaction rate chart makes clear, banks and payment players have plenty of transaction rate wiggle room. The Japanese government is pushing cashless. If necessary the push will become shove for lower rates and yet another cashless program but where do things stand right now?

July 2020 is the proverbial “X-Day” crossover point: Japan is cashless now, even though the transformation is uneven, ongoing and very messy. On the customer side cashless is the mindset and survival behavior for many Japanese, even for older folks who under normal circumstances would prefer using cash until they day they die.

Faced with the reality of handing money that carries the risk of infection, people are going cashless instead especially with contactless smartphone payments. Junya Suzuki was right all along: Apple Pay turned out to be “the black ship of payments” catalyst that finally nudged Japan from cash to cashless. That and COVID.

Market analysts will undoubtably demand chart data that clearly explains and quantifies the transformation before declaring a ‘winner’ but they have a long wait. That’s because the cashless transformation is sloppy with huge regional variations, all happening right before us. But all of this is an afterthought and our priorities are different now, getting accurate market survey information of any kind in the current environment is extremely difficult.

The Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be the event heralding the cashless era but the COVID crisis has forced much more change very quickly. Evidence is best found in the countless little rituals of daily life that have evolved and are not going back. Merchants who do go back to cash face the risk of fewer customers: when offered a choice people choose cashless.

This realization hit me yesterday when my partner complained about his Docomo dPAY points taking a hit because the Summit supermarket staffer tapped a wrong payment button on the new POS cashless menu options added on July 1. He wanted to pay with iD. A year ago he never used iD, dPAY or Apple Pay and never wanted to, but life changed.

These days I hear contactless reader sounds everywhere, FeliCa chirps and EMV beeps are common as clear plastic sheeting and foot position floor stickers at checkout. And just when posting this the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism announced that Japanese Expressways will be going cashless only with ETC. If there’s anything that defines this sea change it is this: it’s not a ‘victory’ over cash that the media sometimes depicts, nor does it feel like progress. In the COVID era it merely feels like survival.

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Another Japanese government cashless promotion gimmick: My Number Point (Updated)

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over, we have a new Japanese government program promoting cashless use for points: My Number Point. And yes it comes with an app. There’s just one tiny gotcha: you have to have a plastic My Number card because as the campaign name makes clear, the whole enterprise is about motivating people to register for a one. The program runs July 1~March 30. Users can get the equivalent of up to ¥5,000 in points in exchange for ¥20,000 worth of cashless shopping.

The basic idea is that starting from July 1, you use the My Number Point app to read the NFC tag in your My Number card and register your cashless payment service of choice: Suica, PayPay, credit card, etc. The full list is here.

After you buy ¥20,000 worth of stuff by August with your registered cashless payment, you get points. We won’t know how bad the sign up process is until it goes live. At best it looks convoluted, and a lot of hoops for only ¥5,000 in points. COVID is already more than enough motivation for going cashless but payment players are dutifully offering extra points for registration.

As your dutiful field reporter, I volunteer to dive into the NFC tag registration process on July 1 and tell you all about it. Here’s the official list of compatible iPhone devices.


Suica/JRE POINT Registration
The registration process, like the app, looks and acts like a government bureaucracy product. It’s not pretty but gets the job done. But it’s a fun exercise using the My Number Card NFC tag for secure login. Here is a quick summary.

Before you start: you’ll need a My Number Card, and a JRE POINT account with your Mobile Suica registered.

(1) Have your My Number Card and 4 PIN login code ready and launch the app. The My Number Card NFC tag read with iPhone seems very allergic to any surrounding metal. Hold the card in your hand, it takes about 8 seconds for a successful read.
(2) Follow steps 1~6 shown here to login and get to payment system registration
(3) You need 3 pieces of info from your JRE POINT account: the JRE POINT exchange number, the registered katakana account name, the registered birth date. Tap the link to the JRE POINT page and login, copy the JRE POINT exchange number and paste it in the Payment Service ID, past the katakana name (no spaces) in Security Code 1, enter the registered birth date into Security Code 2. Enter the last 4 digits of your current iPhone number in the last field.

JRE POINT Info for My Number Card Point registration

(4) After entering and confirming your JRE POINT information you have to enter your My Number Card PIN and read NFC tag again. This completes the process, you should see a green confirmation checkmark.

From here all you need to do is purchase ¥20,000 worth of goods or recharges with Mobile Suica by August 31. The timing and details of the My Number Point bonus into your JRE POINT account should be coming soon. Check the My Number Point page for details.

Sayonara Cashless Rebate Program, we hardly knew you

The CASHLESS Rebate program ends June 30. After that date we have 8% consumption tax for takeout, 10% for eat in, and 10% for everything else. In the long ago world of October 2019 the CASHLESS Rebate program looked like the perfect run up to an economic boost courtesy of the Tokyo Olympics with lots of inbound cashless using visitors.

Now the program is ending. Inbound business has collapsed. And a Japanese economy in retreat needs relief, especially the 5% family business rebate sector. There has been talk of extending some tax relief for family owned ryokans, hotels and the like, but no action has been taken.

It’s impossible now to analyze how much cashless transaction growth the program drove because COVID pushed cashless use into hyperdrive. Nobody wants to handle anybody else’s anything, especially cash.

The real value of the program was that it helped smaller businesses get onboard with cashless payments. The little Colorado Cafe near the office added cashless with the start of the program in October. At the end of the program 50% of the transactions are cashless. That’s not bad considering that most of the clientele is retirement age. In another era we might call this success. In this age, it’s survival.

Dear Starbucks, please give us a NFC Starbucks rewards card

The Starbuck app server was down this morning. Fortunately my daily Starbucks has Suica payments and the staff kindly stamped customer receipts so everybody could get the Starbucks Card refill discount. I posted a silly throwaway tweet about it but received some thoughtful reader feedback that put things in perspective.

On the surface it’s true that Apple controls Wallet NFC card access with PassKit NCF Certificates. However, the Mobile Starbucks Card for Osaifu Keitai came out in March 2014, two years before FeliCa made it into iPhone 7. The mobile card was put out by Starbucks Japan which was not majority owned by Starbucks USA. USA corporate bought out the Japanese business partner at the end of 2014 and brought it under full control. Up until then Starbucks Japan stock was a popular item for the free coffee ticket goodies that came with it. The food was better too. Mobile Starbucks is a relic that will likely be ditched at some point, like the free coffee tickets and good food.

Starbucks USA has never shown any real interest in creating a NFC rewards card. They chose the barcode app route that supports direct bank card registration and recharge. Eventually they added in-app Apple Pay and Google Pay support. Silly market analysts announced that Starbucks app was ‘bigger than Apple Pay’, until they decided that Apple Pay was bigger than apps after all.

Starbucks has put real effort into protecting staff and customers during the COVID crisis. It’s an amazing effort that doesn’t get much attention. Despite this, physical Starbucks Cards are still mag strip cards handed over to staff and swiped at checkout. If Starbucks put out a digital wallet Starbucks Card, how should they do it?

The easiest way on iOS would be an Apple VAS NFC contactless pass. In Japan this is what PONTA and d POINT cards are. Apple VAS is NFC A but it works in combination with any Apple Pay payment protocol, EMV, FeliCa, PBOC, etc. Smart Tap is a similar rewards card NFC method for Google Pay.

This is what customers get when they pay with ‘Apple Pay’ on the Lawsons JP POS system: the reader polls the Wallet default payment card and rewards card, the payment transaction occurs and points are automatically added to the rewards card.

This flexible ‘2 in 1’ contactless payment + rewards package would be very nice to have with Starbucks Card. For app users it would eliminates the ‘open app, pull up barcode, make sure card has enough balance’ nonsense that happens far too often and is easily thwarted by a weak WiFi signal. It would also reduce handling physical cards at checkout.

Unfortunately this requires a POS system that supports NFC contactless, and Starbucks in Japan only supports popular contactless payment cards like Suica and PASMO when the store location is in a station retail area. Starbucks has demonstrated a lot of forward looking business sense in the COVID era so far. I hope they rethink their Japanese POS strategy and incorporate contactless payments and reward cards as standard at all store locations.

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.