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.

Advertisements

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.

WWDC20 iOS 14 Apple Pay Wish List

I already outlined some iOS 14 Apple Pay possibilities regarding AliPay QR payments, UWB Touchless and Secure Element Certificates. iOS 14 AliPay QR support, if it comes, would be a 180 from the Apple Pay Wallet WWDC18 theme of ‘get rid of QR passes and make them NFC’. We’ll see. Here are some wish list items in no particular order, most of them repeats from 2019:

  • Please redo the dumb dark mode driven Wallet transit card UI. All recent Wallet UI tweaks are not about making a better overall Wallet card UI experience and mostly there so it doesn’t suck in dark mode. Sorry, but it still sucks. Honestly, iOS/macOS system wide dark mode is such an overhyped piece of UI crap. I don’t use it anymore.
  • Now that we have Background NFC tag reading across the entire iPhone lineup, can we finally have NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey unveiled last year.
  • Apple Card does dynamic card stuff, would be nice to have for other Wallet cards too.
  • More built in embedded Secure Element provider support: Calypso, CEPAS, etc.
  • Apple Pay Japan is still missing some important e-money prepaid cards like WAON, nanaco, Edy that have been on Google Pay for some time now, it would be nice to have loyalty prepaid card support for items like DOTOUR Value Card too, and please improve the Apple VAS experience, it’s old dog slow on the store reader.

I’d do a postmortem after WWDC. Enjoy the show.

QR Apple Pay Cards for iOS 14 Wallet?

UPDATE: No WWDC20 mention of AliPay for Apple Pay Wallet but there are code references in iOS 14 beta 2, also iOS 14 PassKit: WWDC20 details and developments here


The recent iOS 14 feature leak report from 9to5 Mac closed with an interesting line, “Another change includes AliPay support for Apple Pay with iOS 14.” A reader steered me to a set of images posted to the Octopus on Apple Pay thread on the LIHKG site.

The images suggest a few possible scenarios for iOS 14 Wallet:

  • QR Code payment system players have a PassKit API method to add a ‘QR Card’ to Wallet.
  • Wallet QR Cards set as the main card directly invoked with a side button double-click for Face/Touch ID authentication and dynamic QR Code payment generation without an app.
  • Direct static QR Code reads with Apple Pay payment.

It makes sense that Apple wants to encourage major Chinese QR Code players to join the ranks of top tier Wallet cards like any Apple Pay credit card and not be stuck in an app. Direct Apple Pay Wallet QR integration makes things more convenient for iPhone QR Code users. The Wallet card metaphor is rather strange for QR Codes but that is what the Wallet UI is built around and it differentiates cards from passes. Apple already refers to Apple Pay credit/debit cards as ‘Payment Cards’, QR Code cards will be just another Apple Pay Payment card.

Questions: Will it work offline like Wallet NFC cards? Will Wallet QR Code Payment cards require QR Code PassKit Certificates with NDA similar to NFC PassKit Certificates and will they be renamed Secure Element PassKit Certificates? Is this what the new “PKSecureElementPass” PassKit framework addition in iOS 13.4 is for (in addition to CarKey)?

We’ll find out details online this summer at WWDC20.

Smartphone payments grow with Japan CASHLESS Rebate program

Good news: Japanese consumers are using less cash and more cashless payments. The winners are smartphone contactless apps like Mobile Suica (NFC) and PayPay (QR) which saw use rates grow from 16.4% to 28.6% in the August 2019 to January 2020 period. The CASHLESS Rebate program has clearly lifted all cashless methods which it was designed to do. The bad news? We have no idea where the economy is going in the coronavirus crisis with the Tokyo Olympics in the balance.

The new cashless payments market report from Mobile Marketing Data Labo (MMD) has a few other interesting tidbits. Apple Pay Suica is the most used payment method on iPhone followed closely by PayPay, convenience store purchases are nearly 80%.

The growth of smartphone payments makes sense because it’s one the easiest ways for users to enjoy the benefits of the CASHLESS Rebate program with multiple payment choices, and most convenience stores offer an instant 2% rebate for cashless purchases. The next challenge is how cashless payment trends play out after the rebate program ends June 30.

UPDATE: The Covid crisis will drive cashless payment growth in Japan more than the rebate program and the Tokyo Olympics could ever hope to achieve.