T-POINT? We don’t need no stinkin’ T-POINT

In the ephemeral COVID era we live in assurance don’t come easy, especially with JP cashless market data. Half the fun is taking the crumbs you find, a 1000 person web survey here and there, and seeing what trends you can tease out of it.

First of all the usual disclaimer: cashless use is highly regional, depending on transit use and many other factors like age group, shopping habits, and reward points. It’s this last item that makes the CreditCard no Yomimono survey so interesting.

Reward points are the dangling carrot all Japanese cashless players use to drive card use. New comers like PayPay use them shamelessly to capture customers and build their platform. Japanese customers love to play the ‘what combo gets me the most points’ game but they are also notoriously cold shoulder when they feel gypped. And once they drop something, they never come back.

The survey skips over regional point systems like JRE POINT (though I think that’s debatable considering Mobile Suica on Apple Pay/Google Pay/Osaifu Keitai), and examines ‘national’ point systems: d POINT, T-POINT, Rakuten POINT and PONTA with a simple question. Which one do you use? 2,271 people said:

  • Rakuten POINT: 59.9%
  • d POINT: 18.4%
  • T-POINT: 14.4%
  • PONTA: 7.3%

It’s clear to see why JR East cut that special deal for Rakuten Pay Suica: the different online Rakuten businesses for shopping, travel, etc. mesh well and there are a lot of people invested in Rakuten POINT. The deal puts Super Suica in a good 2021 launch position for new local transit partners, MaaS NFC Tag Suica and more as the platform grows.

It’s a bittersweet deal however for JRE POINT. It’s a real shame and missed opportunity that the major IC transit cards (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) are compatible for transit and eMoney, but not for points. Even if they all kept their own point branding and simply offered 1=1 point exchanges, people would use them more.

The decline of T-POINT is not surprising, dropping from 60% in a 2015 survey. Culture Convenience Club (CCC) and SoftBank ran T-POINT into the ground and it’s not coming back. It’s only a matter of time before SoftBank kisses T-POINT (and CCC) goodbye and unveils PayPay POINT.

PONTA is another major that has not gained much traction so far but this might change with the recent LAWSON Bank PONTA Plus branded credit card push. All of the point systems need to add Apple VAS and Google SmartPay support and drive acceptance on the merchant POS level. The less we have to deal with separate plastic point cards, all the better.

Rakuten Pay Suica

One year after the tie-up was announced, the Rakuten Pay Android app was updated yesterday and now supports adding a Rakuten branded Suica card and recharging that earns Rakuten Points, all done within Rakuten Pay. Each ¥200 of a recharge earns 1 Rakuten Point.

Outside of the Rakuten Pay app is confusing: red Rakuten Suica is only seen in Rakuten Pay but everywhere else it looks and acts like a regular green Suica (in Google Wallet, Mobile Suica, Osaifu Keitai app). But the Rakuten Point earning recharge is limited to Rakuten Pay app recharge which only sees the red Rakuten Suica and nothing else. Whew. Details are outlined clear as mud in the Rakuten Suica English press release.

Plugging Suica into the Rakuten Point empire is the whole point of the JR East/Rakuten tie-up but the current implementation is still missing an important point: free Suica recharges with Rakuten Points. This is promised in a future update. Up until now JR East has kept free Suica recharge exclusively for their own JRE POINT system where registered users earn JRE POINT with Suica then use points for free Suica recharge and Green Seat upgrades. The advantage for JR East is that Rakuten Point users outside of JR East’s transit region now have an incentive to use Suica for purchases and local transit as part of the Rakuten Payment experience.

There is no reason why Rakuten Suica couldn’t also work on Apple Pay but Rakuten probably wants to keep their branded Suica in their own app which is not allowed by Apple. Rakuten Suica would have to reside in Wallet just like the Mizuho Suica that recharges via its own app or Apple Pay. If Rakuten can live with that, Rakuten Suica has an Apple Pay future. For now, iOS users can earn Rakuten Points when recharging Suica with a Rakuten credit card but the sign-up process is convoluted and only good for 30 days before you have to sign up again.

Rakuten Pay branded Suica for Android in 2020

Apple Pay users got the Mizuho branded Suica in 2018, so it’s only fair that Android Suica users get a digitally branded Suica too. JR East and Rakuten announced Rakuten Pay Suica today. Starting next spring, Rakuten Pay users on Osaifu Keitai Android (no mention of Google Pay, ahem), will be able to create a virtual Rakuten Pay Suica card in the Rakuten Pay app and rack up Rakuten points when recharging it with Rakuten Pay.

Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani is a former bank executive and his buildup of the Rakuten payments service empire is impressive. The whole point is to remove credit cards and banks from the Suica recharge process for Rakuten Pay users, and there are lots of them. So much so that some Apple Pay users might be tempted to switch to Android just to use Rakuten Pay Suica.

All things Suica will change with the arrival of Super Suica in 2021. Until then this is another nice, and strategically important, expansion of the Suica Transit Platform, extending the usefulness of Suica in the Rakuten Pay point universe that has a deep user base in rural areas. Come to think of it, this is JR East getting their ducks in a row for the Super Suica rollout that will incorporate all those local rural transit IC cards that have been left out the e-money and digital wallet revolution. It’s a perfect matchup.

UPDATE
Rakuten and JR East are examining iOS support in addition to Android. Jennifer Bailey and the Apple Pay crew had better get cracking on negotiations with Rakuten, Rakuten Pay Suica is going to be way bigger and more important than Mizuho Suica can ever be.

For the Rakuten Pay app, FeliCa is just one payment protocol sitting alongside barcodes, Bluetooth and QR Codes