Who’s afraid of big bad code payments?

I have lots of respect Bloomberg reporter Gearoid Reidy, but a recent Twitter exchange he had with Craig Mod about code payment apps vs NFC reminded me that no matter how long westerners reside in Japan and appreciate the culture, our western cultural ‘winner or loser’ take on things too often gets in the way of truly understanding what’s going on. The Japanese take complexity in stride and are very adept at dealing with situations that drive us westerners crazy.

This is especially true when the debate is about that contentious intersection of contactless payments and technology: EMV is the winner FeliCa the loser, code payments are the winner NFC is the loser, and so on. As fun as that debate can be at times, the black and white distracts westerners, and even some Japanese from analyzing the gray to find out what’s driving the narratives and why.

My take has always been that Japan is the best place to observe trends first before they happen elsewhere. This is what Gearoid half jokingly calls ‘j a p a n i f i c a t i o n’. It’s real and has nothing to do with liking or disliking Japan. Either way, too many dismiss the opportunity to learn ahead of the curve. My take has also been that the crazy kaleidoscope of Japanese payment choices is coming to your country too. We got a taste of that with the announcement of the Australian national QR payments and rewards platform called eQR.

The standard Japanese market debate point of code payments vs NFC assumes the China Alipay model. China didn’t have the mobile NFC contactless payments infrastructure that Japan had, so the Alipay code payment model makes sense there. In Japan it does not, which is why Gearoid and Craig are scratching their heads in public. Code payments in Japan are all about leverage, big data, and carriers. Leverage in that carriers like NTT docomo keep the dBarai accounts in-house and use the float for their own purposes instead of letting banks and credit card companies earn interest on dCard accounts. That’s why they encourage users to use dCard to recharge the code payment dBarai account instead of using the card directly.

It’s a similar situation for SoftBank and PayPay, though I suspect it has more to do with deficit financing funnery that SoftBank Holdings is so adept at. Heaven help us, and all those Vision Fund supporters, if it comes crashing down. PayPay has been helpful though at shining a bright light on Japanese payment networks and the various service fee structures from CAFIS on down. VISA JP has suddenly seen the light and proposes to do something about it…perhaps.

Code payments are just a tool in the swiss army knife payment wallet app, like Toyota Wallet, insurance and leverage. We saw that in action when Apple Pay first launched in America and Walmart answered with CurrentC. We’re seeing again with eQR in Australia and it will keep happening when merchants or banks or payment service players need a tool to bargain a better percentage. Heck even Apple Pay is flirting with the idea of adding code payments to Wallet, though I think their hesitancy to do so means…it’s just a bargaining tool for Apple too.

So you think this is a Japanese only phenomenon? Think again.

Japan mobile payment survey results

I gave the Twitter survey function a workout and asked 2 questions:

  • Which Japanese mobile payment do you use most?
  • Which Japanese reward points do you use most?

The results are not surprising but come with many caveats: the survey sampling was puny, in English and pretty much limited to a small group of Twitter followers, which means they are pretty much already invested in Mobile Suica. Also it is important to remember that mobile payment use profiles in Japan are highly regional, what’s convenient in Tokyo isn’t necessarily convenient in other areas. That said, there are some interesting and fun takeaways.

Japanese mobile payment takeaways and feedback

  • The 55% Suica/PASMO figure expresses the power of Apple Pay Express Transit (and similar for Osaifu Keitai) for store purchases in the COVID induced face mask era without the hassle of Face ID. It’s important to remember that the ballyhooed Unlock with Apple Watch Face ID feature introduced with iOS 14.5 is useless for Apple Pay authorization. Remember too that Mobile Suica has good support on wearables: Apple Watch, Garmin, fitbit, etc., the widest mobile payment platform in Japan.
  • Despite the heavy marketing VISA Touch from VISA Japan, the majority of users have been using Apple Pay and Osaifu Keitai for iD and QUICPay, etc. I suspect EMV ‘Touch’ (Visa, MC, AMEX, JCB) probably appeals more to plastic card users as VISA is pushing EMV only plastic cards vs. digital wallet dual mode Apple Pay.
  • QR Code payment apps (PayPay, dBarai, LinePay, etc.) are not as popular as you might think and are probably feeling the pain of recent bank account linking security problems, and the recent revelations of user transaction records being stored outside of Japan.

Changes quite a lot. Recently using EMV touch a lot because of SMCC 15% back campaign and Amex 20% at FamilyMart. Otherwise probably a little bit of everything just to get maximum reward. (Tokyo)

I don’t ride trains so I have no real use for Suica. Using it to pay in shops is too much of a PITA since you have to constantly recharge it. (Kagoshima, note that Suica Auto-charge only works in JR East transit region)

I do iD for the point rewards (none in JP CC recharge of Suica) otherwise Express Transit is perfect. (Tokyo)

Mostly Suica (via Garmin Pay), but I’ve been using au Pay (QR or barcode) a lot more recently. (Hiroshima)

Japanese reward point takeaway
Results are complicated. Twitter surveys are limited to 4 choices, I lumped the Japanese carrier reward point systems for docomo, au and SoftBank (dPoint, au•PONTA, T-POINT) into one category, the top choice at 43%. However if we break down the carrier number by carrier marketshare ratio we get the following:

  1. 21% JRE POINT
  2. 28% Rakuten POINT
  3. 19% dPOINT
  4. 14% au•PONTA POINT
  5. 10% T-POINT
  6. 8% V POINT

The key takeaway for reward points is the power of the Rakuten ‘Economic Zone’, i.e. where all the Rakuten pieces including shopping, banking/credit card/payments, transit (Rakuten Suica), mobile, stock trading, travel, etc., are glued together by Rakuten POINT and feed off each other. The Rakuten Economic Zone is the model that others will have to successfully emulate if they are going to be serious long term competitors. NTT docomo announced a tie-up with MUFG this month, the digital banking wars are just getting started.

Real life code payments

Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.

This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.

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 Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card (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.

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.