Quick, what’s the number one complaint foreigners had when they couldn’t use their foreign issue VISA cards for Apple Pay Suica recharge anymore? Was it inconvenience? No, it was points. Specifically Chase Sapphire VISA 3x travel points. And what’s the number one compliment that foreigners have about using EMV open loop transit boutiques? Earning reward points. The Chase Sapphire VISA crowd had already moved on from Suica to PASMO back when JR East pulled 3x travel points for 1x shopping points for Suica recharge back in May 2021. Points are where the action is.
Go on over to YouTube and check out Wendover Productions How Airlines Quietly Became Banks. The video neatly explains what industry insiders and analysts have know for some time: flying passengers is a money losing business, the profit is made on selling services with loyalty programs, loyalty programs that are in reality clever financial instruments…loyalty program banks if you will. Reward points are like virtual money, but they can be treated like futures trading in that they will be traded in for certain services at a certain value…at some point. The untaxed reality gap is where all the fun happens: there are ways to earn real money off virtual money without a fixed holding period.
This is why airlines have made loyalty programs into separate subsidiary companies that are worth more than the money losing parent airline companies. The key takeaway: airlines are in the business turning a profit by selling services with attached loyalty programs to passengers riding on money losing airlines. Starbucks does a similar thing with their Starbucks card loyalty program which is also called a massive bank, all that unspent money on all those cards, similar to the Suica float. The Japanese point economic zones, Rakuten, PayPay and NTT docomo dPay have been doing all this for years already.
Is there anybody doing the same thing with rail transit with ridership still reeling in the post-Covid era? Very, very few. How many rail transit companies have a loyalty program similar to what airlines do: earning and using rewards across many different services? You probably can’t come up with one. JR East JRE POINT is a rail transit company loyalty program, the only comprehensive one that exists right now and it will formally joined with a real bank too in 2024 with the launch of JRE BANK. The recently launched JR West WESTER aims to become loyalty program, perhaps even a loyalty bank. Let’s take a closer look at how the comparisons stack up internationally.
The key difference is that Suica and Octopus are both transit and payments cards, in other words a payment platform. Owning the payments side is key for driving loyalty programs. It’s interesting too that Suica, Octopus and EasyCard used FeliCa and MIFARE that allowed them to build payment platforms that are independent of EMV. Another interesting aspect is that while JR East is a private transit company, Octopus is mostly government owned but doesn’t act like a public transit owned company.
All of the western transit companies are government owned and expected to be ‘public transit’ where making profit isn’t the bottom line. The reason why most MIFARE based transit cards never evolved beyond being transit cards (Taiwan’s EasyCard being the outstanding case) and leave the point reward franchises to the EMV open loop card brands, comes down to local politics of public transit. But is this really in the public interest?
My argument in countless posts over the years is that leaving everything to EMV open loop card brands is giving away a money franchise to the EMV consortium. It leaves money on the table that could have been used to build local transit linked services and infrastructure ecosystem that benefits all transit users and encourages transit ecosystem use.
Japanese ridership and fare income will only go down from here so Japanese transit companies need to be like airlines and earn money from selling service extras. Much better for long term transit sustainability to become a loyalty bank that leverages transit infrastructure loyalty linked services into profit. A close examination of the 10 Transit IC cards gives us a good idea of how open loop support in Japan will play out.
Outside of JRE POINT and WESTER, most of Transit IC cards except for TOICA and PiTaPa have some form of point bonus rewards for riding transit. Most are bare boned, manual affairs that involve a trip to the station ticket kiosk machine to load reward points. Tokyo area PASMO member transit companies have their own point systems, as do Osaka area PiTaPa transit companies which is the problem: despite sharing the same Transit IC card brand, the various point systems have no compatibility or synergy. There are a bunch of point card fiefdoms that cannot evolve into loyalty program platform. PiTiPa is the worst off of all, a failure with a shrinking user base despite being a credit card post-pay transit card.
The smallest transit cards, by user number, without robust point systems are exactly the first systems targeted for open loop by the SBI Holdings backed Japanese open loop Quadrac consortium (Quadrac for backend servers, Japan Signal for gate readers, VISA for sponsorship, SMBC for stera payment processing) : Fukuoka City Transit (hayaken) and Nankai (PiTaPa). They can implement open loop without diluting their loyalty programs because they don’t have any. It’s a similar case with ‘shared’ transit cards like PASMO.
PASMO members TOKYU and Tokyo Metro have stronger point systems silos but those silos do not translate across the PASMO ecosystem. Users can dump earned points into their PASMO card with a point recharge but there is no method for tying point rewards to services across the entire ecosystem. The dilemma for PASMO members, especially Tokyu who footed the bill for building Mobile PASMO, is balancing open loop and closed loop without diluting their PASMO related point business.
Here’s a Q&A that hopefully sums up some basic points of where things go from here.
Q: Will Suica disappear?
A: No. Suica is a loyalty platform and ecosystem, not a transit card.
Q: Will JR East replace FeliCa with EMV as the Suica foundation technology?
A: This is a topic that Japanese IT media loves to dream about like salarymen fantasizing about manga sex they read on the commute home. FeliCa and EMV are proprietary technology packages that come with licensing price-tags. EMV has the added risk that JR East would have to ally with a EMV payment brand to create a EMV white-label closed loop Suica card, like OMNY card. There are other disadvantages: NFC A is the slowest NFC transaction flavor no matter how much backend optimization the Quadrac consortium come up with, and offline payment transaction support is limited because mutual authentication and card balance is done on central servers. Last but not least: JR East owns a nice big chunk of FeliCa Networks along with Sony and NTT Docomo.
Q: Will EMV open loop be ubiquitous across all transit operators in Japan?
A: No, for the business reasons outlined above. JR East, JR West, and probably JR Central will not implement open loop as they want to sell closed loop Shinkansen tickets with loyalty programs. There isn’t any reason to partner with a EMV card brand for a white-label closed loop card when they already own FeliCa and QR closed loop products. There is also the scale problem. Open loop has been pushed by the media as a solution that solves every transit ticketing problem. It doesn’t. The reality is that open loop works best with simple fare structures. Closed loop works much better with complexity and interconnectivity.
In closing, Japan is the only country where open loop is being deployed by private rail transit companies that need to make money. Just as airlines ally and break with different card issuers for their loyalty programs, for business reasons and market politics, expect a similar market dance here. Payment technology, whether EMV, FeliCa or QR is just a means to an end of owning a vertically integrated loyalty program empire. The Japanese payments market will continue to be interesting ride that cannot be experienced anywhere else.