Japan Cashless X-Day

Anybody care to chart the Japanese cashless transformation?

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over with transaction rates said to be going back to ‘normal’ (an estimated 1% rise over 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 we can get an idea from the QR payment rates recently revealed in connection with the Japan QR (JPQR) unified code scheme:

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 it’s an uneven, ongoing and very messy transformation. On the customer side cashless is the mindset and survival behavior for many Japanese, even for older folks who under normal circumstances would prefer 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 who want a neat set of chart data that clearly explains and quantifies the transformation before declaring ‘the winner’ have a long wait. The said transformation is sloppy, all over the place and happening right before us, but also an afterthought. Priorities are different, getting accurate market survey information in the current environment will be extremely difficult.

The Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be the event heralding the new era but the COVID crisis has forced much more rapid change. 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. 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. When reading the My Number Card NFC tag with iPhone be sure to be far away from any metal. The card read process seems very susceptible to it
(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.

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.

Hell to the yes: Apple Pay Octopus launch…for real (Updated)

Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ that went out to local media outlets on May 28 signaled Octopus for Apple Pay would finally launch on June 2, which it did in tandem with Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit directions just before 1 am June 2 local Hong Kong time. The press event took place at 12:30 pm.

Didn’t we do this already?

OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. The Apple Pay Octopus Wait for Godot was a very bumpy journey. A timeline:

Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch
Apple Pay Octopus is just like Apple Pay Suica with Express Transit. It can be used on iPhone 8 and later with iOS 13.5, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later with watchOS 6.2.5. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or UnionPay bank card already in Wallet.

iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered transit card performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.

Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).

Similarities with Suica
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.

Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.

New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards or added via the Octopus app (v6). Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer.

Some attached services are not supported. Be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus. Another issue to be aware of is that the Octopus card number changes when transferred which can cause problems with some card ID# linked services.

Not Inbound Friendly
OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to having Hong Kong issue Mastercard, UnionPay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.

In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.

Unfortunately OCL was limited by restrictive Hong Kong bank agreements and didn’t offer any Apple Pay inbound friendly solutions at the press event. Hopefully they will expand inbound bank card support down the road as banks realize the value of enticing tourists to use Hong Kong transit.

Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. However, OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other mobile digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.

Apple Maps Transit Integration
Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit directions launched in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time and offers extras like crowding info. Another limitation shared with Apple Maps in Japan: no indoor station mapping.

Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility
Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.

The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 mainland cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to UnionPay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.

The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.

Why the long wait?
There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.

Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure, though many will disagree. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach with constant tweaking of mobile and O! ePay services was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.

I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.

‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ June 2 press event invitation
Mobile Suica has a long history dating back to 2007. Mobile use growth had stalled until the Apple Pay Suica launch in 2016. Octopus on Apple Pay will likely drive a similar spurt of mobile use.

UPDATES

June 3 8:00 JST: Octopus issues apology, “Due to the overwhelming response to the launch of Octopus on iPhone and Apple Watch, some customers could not add their Octopus between 11:30 am and 12:19 pm on 2 June,” and compensating some Octopus users
June 2 12:00 JST: Octopus Card Limited site updated for Apple Pay Octopus and a press release
June 2 09:00 JST: Apple Pay Octopus page added to Hong Kong Apple site with instructions for creating, transferring and topping up Octopus cards in Apple Pay
June 2 03:20 JST: Octopus App v6 update released
June 2 01:50 JST: Apple Pay Octopus has launched, rollout expanding in stages
June 2 00:46 JST: Apple Pay Transit directions for Hong Kong appearing in advance of the Apple Pay Octopus