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Starbucks officially adds Suica contactless payments…finally

Apple Pay Suica/PASMO finally joined the official Starbucks payment lineup, something that many people have wanted for a long time. Nothing beats Apple Pay Suica Express Transit for grabbing coffee on the run.

I knew something was coming when Panasonic JT-R600 all-in-one readers appeared in Starbucks stores starting last summer. Initially these were for EMV chip cards and came with ‘please don’t forget to remove your card’ reminder stickers. EMV contactless is missing though I suspect it will come at some point. Other FeliCa contactless payments such as iD, QUICPay, Waon, nanaco, and Edy are also missing. Line Pay QR is accepted at some store locations but remains limited for now.

Suica/PASMO (and other eMoney like Waon) has been accepted for years at Starbucks locations in stations and malls where tenants integrate payment+reward point systems provided by the landlord. Suica/PASMO support is not native however and bolted onto the Starbucks checkout system. For JR East station area locations tied into the JRE POINT system this means double entry Suica payments: once for the Starbucks checkout and once more for the Suica/JRE POINT payment reader. This will remain in place until JR East and other retail landlords (PAMSO, etc.) come up with a better system for integrating JRE POINT (etc.) with Starbucks’ native Suica support. The big takeaway is that Suica/Transit IC is officially supported and earmarked for all locations.

Contactless payments are a welcome step forward but I wish Starbucks integrated their own reward points via NFC VAS instead of barcode in Starbucks app nonsense. That way I could get JRE POINT and Starbucks point with a single Apple Watch Suica tap at JR East station Starbucks locations without the hassle of iPhone Face ID with face mask. And while we’re on the subject of NFC VAS reward point cards…JR East hurry up with that JRE POINT card for Apple Wallet please.

UPDATE
Starbucks is running a ¥100 One More Coffee refill campaign with Suica/Transit IC purchase from January 13~June 30, a ¥50 discount. A good reason to kiss the iOS Starbucks App barcode thing goodbye for the duration and use Apple Pay Suica/PASMO Express Transit instead.

2021 Outlook: Apple Pay Code Payments and Multi-Payment Wallet Cards

A happy new year to everybody. When reading Junya Suzuki’s year end Apple Pay and contactless history in Japan article, I was irritated by its ‘rah rah for open loop’ ending that seemed to conclude EMV isn’t very slow and tap speed differences don’t really matter. After reading followup tweets with other IT journalists I realized that wasn’t his point at all. What Suzuki san was really saying was the total transit gate experience counts more than any particular technology package (MIFARE, FeliCa, EMV Open Loop, etc.).

Steve Jobs said the same thing about technology and products in the famous, “you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” 1997 WWDC video. In other words, the whole (the product) has to be larger than sum of the parts (the technology pieces that make up the product) to be a success. It’s all about how they integrate as a product into the larger whole ‘vision’ thing. JR East transit gates are great because the total experience is greater than sum of FeliCa, Suica, JREM reader and gate design technology parts added together.

When it comes to payments however it’s not just about technology, it’s also the raw power plays going on behind the scenes. In the same article Suzuki san nonchalantly mentions that NTT Docomo dCard, which SMBC has issued and operated since the very beginning but in open warfare with Docomo these past few years, is dumping SMBC for UC Card group (Mizuho) this year.

There is also constant pressure to eliminate Japanese FeliCa contactless payment networks in favor EMV using the old bait and switch tactic of promoting a proprietary industry standard when the real end game is eliminating local competitors. These are issues that few journalists bother to analyze deeply and also what got Jack Ma in trouble when he blasted the Basel Accords, the traditional banking system, as an exclusive old men’s club that stifles innovation.

Power games in the world’s greatest free-for-all payments market
I’ve said this many times but one of the great things about Japan many western journalists completely miss, is that Japan is the world best guinea pig test market. Especially useful for observing new payment trends at work. The market is a perfect not too big not too small size, super cohesive, and it has a long history of Osaifu Keitai mobile payments with a wide foundation of payment technologies encompassing FeliCa, EMV and QR. And there is lots of money sitting in bank accounts. This unique mix affords the careful observer a virtual front seat on the power games playing out right now after the introduction of QR based payment services like Line Pay, PayPay and dBarai (dPay).

When Docomo unveiled their dBarai app service it confused many users. What was the point of using code payments when Docomo already had dCard and the whole Mobile FeliCa iD network in place for promoting contactless payments? But it wasn’t long before Docomo linked the 2 payment services together. dBarai users can pay using 3 different backend payment choices: direct dCard billing, monthly Docomo billing, a rechargeable stored value dBarai account with cash recharge options via ATM or linked bank account.

From the user point of view it doesn’t matter when they pay with a Docomo code payment app tied and charged to their dCard on the backend, it’s the same monthly bill. But to Docomo it is very different: instead of using the iD or SMBC VISA/MC payment network on the front end, it’s the Docomo dBarai payment network. I suspect Docomo pays less of a transaction cut to the bank because they have the cash flow to assume some of the risk that banks usually assume in establied credit card network transactions. Docomo likely also leverages the daily transaction float. In short the AliPay model. The next logical step for Docomo dBarai will be P2P payments that leverage Docomo’s Mercari connection.

The value of code payments in dBarai isn’t the technology, it’s a expedient tool that Docomo leverages to circumvent the limitations and fee structure of banks and card networks to create their own flexible payment network. This wiggle room is the essential margin that drives QR Code payment empire cashbacks, point giveaways and new services. This is the epicenter of the cashless payment turf wars that pits new mobile payment players against established card and bank networks. And Apple is about to dump delicious chunk bait into this shark tank.

The Toyota Wallet multi-payment model
In the Apple Pay 2020 wrap-up I mentioned Toyota Wallet as the most important trend: a Wallet app that lets users pay with a QR code or with NFC via an instant issue prepaid Apple Pay Wallet card. The Toyota Wallet iD/Mastercard has 2 Apple Pay device account numbers, one for the iD payment network and one for the Mastercard payment network. This is common for most Japanese issue payment cards on Apple Pay but it is less about NFC protocols (FeliCa, EMV) and all about dual payment network support in a single payment card. And it is not limited to Japan. In Australia there are dual payment Apple Pay cards that support both Mastercard and EFTPOS payment networks in a single card.

With Apple Pay Code Payments on the way, possibly with iOS 14.4, we have another option for multi-payment network cards: code payment and NFC payment. Apple Pay Code Payments are thought of as being only for AliPay and WeChat Pay support in China, but they are much more than that.

Apple Pay Code Payments gives mobile payment players the ability to move QR/barcode payments from an outside app and integrate them directly into an Apple Pay Wallet card. In the Toyota Wallet example below, Toyota could simply add another device account number for the QR Code payment network:

This might seem trivial but it’s important to remember some key differences of Wallet payment cards:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device payment transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

If Apple Pay Code Payments are equal with Apple Pay NFC payments, and by all indications from beta screen shots they are and use the same ‘card’ UI metaphor, I think we are in for another wave of Apple Pay market disruption. Instead of NFC vs QR Codes, or Apple Pay/Google Pay vs apps, all of it just red herring fake debate, we can focus on what’s real: the payment network turf wars.

In the Japan market Line Pay, PayPay, dBarai, Rakuten and all other new players will have the tools to create better services tightly integrated in a Apple Pay Wallet card. Docomo for example could incorporate dBarai into dCard with an additional device account number. Mix and match payment networking in one card.

In the payment network world where market share is all, card networks have held too much power for too long, exactly what Jack Ma was complaining about. I see competition as a good thing that encourages innovation and choice, mobile payments are doing that.

Looping back to the open loop beginning of this piece I think it makes sense now to realign the debate points away from focusing on technology (EMV vs FeliCa, NFC vs QR, etc.), i.e. things that can change and evolve, and focus on payment network turf wars, i.e. things that are hard to change until you see the battles lines clearly enough to create a better strategy and get where you want to go.

In the public transit arena it always comes down to this. Moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is licensed cash flow from the fare gates. A transit company can keep control of that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit card region, which can cover the nation. A transit company can give control away to someone else and let them take their cut, but just like Jack Ma pointed out before he disappeared, will there be innovation when going all in with traditional card and bank payment networks?

I still say a transit platform, especially in the mobile era of chaotic opportunity, is the best approach if a company wants to achieve the former: a system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Start with the best customer experience you want to deliver and work backwards to the technology.

The Great Big Nankai VISA Touch Transit Boutique

VISA Japan has been busy this year marketing VISA Touch contactless cards with the SMBC group, leveraging the SMBC-GMO-VISA co-venture stera payment platform that launched on July 6. We have already seen a few VISA Touch stera powered ‘transit boutiques’: smallish inbound tourist centric transit companies that don’t support Transit IC cards like Suica and PASMO. This could be changing.

Nankai Electric Railway along with VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd., a SoftBank and hedge funded systems company that develops VISA Touch and QR fare systems among other things, announced a co-venture test of VISA Touch and QR Code open loop fares for ‘inbound tourists’ on Nankai transit gates in 2021. ‘Test’ not ‘rollout’. The wording of the press announcement is vague with photo ‘images’ of what it might look like. It reads more like a VISA PR release than a Nankai one.

To understand why Nankai is testing this it helps to know a few things. Nankai lines service Kansai International Airport that up until COVID hit had a lot of inbound tourists from China visiting Universal Studio Japan in Osaka, amoung other things, the AliPay thing being the most important.

The other thing to know is that Kansai area transit companies (Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai, Hanshin) never developed a PASMO like transit card for non-JR group transit companies. PiTaPa is a failure because it’s a post-pay transit card, a SMBC managed credit card with credit card checks and unsuitable for the commuter pass masses without credit cards. This is why Hankyu ‘borrows’ the JR West ICOCA card for issuing commuter passes. It’s a mess. But it also means that transit companies in the PiTaPa SMBC orbit are in a weaker position, open to SMBC pressure and loan incentives to try VISA Touch open loop (not really open loop when it’s an exclusive VISA Touch arrangement and nothing else right?).

The Japan Transit IC map. Post-pay PiTaPa based transit cards are in a weaker position than regular prepaid transit cards

It also helps to know that stera Panasonic JT-C60 NFC readers are the slowest transit Suica compatible readers I have every used. These same readers are used in VISA Touch transit boutiques and we all know that EMV contactless is slower than FeliCa.

So what is Nankai testing exactly?

(1) Transit gate friction. Transit IC card tap speed is less than 200 milliseconds (ms) while legacy mag strip paper ticketing is 600 ms. The stera Panasonic readers are far slower than 600 ms, if that’s what they end up using for the test…it’s hilarious to imagine Nankai retrofitting a bulky slow Android based NFC reader on a Omron transit gate.

(2) Fare system overhead. How much does the centralized fare processing and linking to VISA and AliPay cost and how does it perform versus local stored value transit IC cards.

The eventual rollout plan will be based on hardware and system cost balanced against the estimate of capturing more inbound transit revenue. There are also transit gate layout issues to consider, is it better to go with slow and fast lane transit gate layout, or retrofit every gate as cheaply as possible. Does any of this make sense in the COVID era when tap speed is more important than ever?

The Real Friction Point: Inbound
We’ll see how it works out but since the advertised point of this effort is for the benefit of inbound tourists, I’ll come out and say it: one of the best things about COVID is the elimination of inbound tourists and their luggage on commuter trains in heavily trafficked areas like JR East Yamanote.

Large groups of people with lots of luggage riding commuter trains during rush hours without following common sense etiquette is a huge stress point for regular commuters. When doors are blocked by luggage and tourists who don’t know, or don’t care about other people using the train, it’s trouble in the making.

The hallmark of any good transit system is safety and reliability, a finely tuned balance of servicing all customers and wisely investing in infrastructure. All too often the grab for inbound tourists ignores this balance at the expense of daily riders. Nankai must keep this in mind. If they do not it will end up being a ‘do less with more’ money losing proposition for Nankai, but not for VISA, SMBC and QUARDRAC.

Japan Cashless 2020 Retrospect

As we look back on 2020 there are 2 big divides: COVID and cashless. We suddenly found ourselves in a world where all human contact is conducted behind face masks and sheets of clear plastic. Not touching anything not ours is the rule of daily life.

The year started with the Japanese Cashless tax rebate in full swing but the real value of the program, helping smaller merchants to add cashless payments, became clear when the Diamond Princess brought the COVID crisis to Japan big time and real cash suddenly become suspect fomite material. More than anything, COVID fears attached to handling cash drove cashless use in 2020 but are we there yet? Back in July, I said we are. It will be months before official 2020 cashless trend numbers are in, but you don’t need anything more than to ask yourself one simple question:

How much has changed since the October 25, 2016 Apple Pay Japan launch?

Junya Suzuki correctly predicted Apple Pay would be the ‘Black Ships‘ inflection point catalyst for cashless payments in Japan that would change everything. And everything has changed. Cashless is now the first choice that most people want, that most stores want you to use. Cash is the fallback. If grandma want to use it at the supermarket checkout she can take all the time she wants feeding bills and coins into a checkout payment machine. Just one more choice in the every growing payment option menu.

There were other cashless developments in 2020, such as the Yucho Bank security scandal that hit the Docomo Account first, then other online payment services. The end result was that QR Code players (PayPay, Line Pay, etc.) took a hit and for the time being cannot recharge from a bank account. It knocked the wind out of QR Code payment mania that I don’t see returning.

On the transit front the biggest news was the Mobile PASMO Android and Apple Pay PASMO launch. Geographically these only cover the Kanto region but Suica and PASMO combined represent 80% of the Japanese transit IC card market. As Mobile PASMO turned out to be recycled Mobile Suica under the hood, I see it as part of the overall JR East next generation Super Suica that is formally launching in March 2021.

2021 should be an interesting year for contactless payments with Super Suica and VISA Japan finally signing on with Apple Pay. We will see more transit IC card service announcements similar to the Mobile ICOCA one, and if Apple Pay QR Code Payments launch we could see developments in that segment, but 2020 will always be known as the year that Japan finally went cashless.

VISA Touch Transit Boutiques

VISA Japan announced VISA Touch support on Kyoto Tango Railway, most media outlets simply ran edited versions of the VISA Japan press release. The infrastructure uses a slightly modified stera store reader platform, which VISA has a hand in. Willer Inc. is hailing this as the first ‘VISA Touch’ solution on Japanese train systems but they ignored the fact that stera VISA Touch was already announced for Ibaraki Transit highway bus service back in July.

Japanese journalist comments on Twitter were fun to read with the ‘let’s just dump FeliCa and Suica already and go all in with EMV’ supporters club checking in as usual. Nobi Hayashi asked good questions regarding real user convenience. Junya Suzuki said he plans a trip to investigate the new service, his next ‘Pay Attention’ column promises to be a good read.

Just what kind of end user are these VISA Touch transit installations targeting anyway? Let’s do a quick profile:

  1. VISA Touch JP plastic cards are being issued in Japan but they are new and few and dwarfed by the number of Transit IC cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) that can be bought by anybody at any station kiosk machine with cash. Apple Pay Japan users cannot use it because VISA JP refuses to support Apple Pay JP FeliCa/EMV dual mode NFC switching. This service is not targeted for domestic transit users.
  2. Both of these VISA Touch installation transit areas market heavily to inbound tourists, neither of them support Transit IC cards.
  3. VISA Touch is not compatible with PBOC Union Pay cards technology, the installations also support QR Code AliPay and WeChat Pay for inbound Chinese tourists

The short summary is these installations are for inbound tourists with VISA Touch contactless credit cards, a transit boutique for marketing purposes more than real use.

Japanese media is quick to dismiss FeliCa as a technical failure in the face of EMV but I think that is the wrong analysis. Looking back it’s easy to see a huge mistake was that the big push for Mobile FeliCa credit cards on smartphones was not matched with an equally big push for plastic credit cards with FeliCa support.

And the big EMV push instead of FeliCa has not worked out so great either. Instead of making a technology agnostic unified push for NFC contactless, EMV bank card interests pushed their own agenda. All that did was provide a big opening for domestic QR Code payment players like Line Pay and Pay Pay which they took and continue to take.

What I find fascinating is that the mainstream Japanese IT media has not written much about the Super Suica 2 in 1 card strategy or rollout plans. Low cost transit IC card infrastructure sharing that delivers consistent and seamless transit service on mobile and legacy plastic while offering local area branding and services is a compelling vision that I don’t see bank card companies matching.

The challenge for JR group companies (JR West, JR Central, JR Kyushu, etc.) is working with JR East to offer Super Suica 2 in 1 card solutions in their own regions, because if they do not we’ll see more VISA Touch transit boutiques.