Emma Thomasson Berlin

Big retailers are muscling in on the likes of Visa, MasterCard and Google in a fiercely competitive and growing mobile payment market that promises to cut transaction costs and increase customer loyalty.

Stores such as UK supermarket Tesco and France’s Auchan hope their “digital wallets” – apps that allow users to pay with their smartphones rather than cash or cards – will also give them more comprehensive data about customers’ shopping habits so they can target advertising.

They are joining a crowded market: banks, card companies and tech firms like Google and Apple are entering the mobile payment business, each hoping their app will become the industry standard. eBay’s PayPal, well established in e-commerce, is also experimenting with the technology.

Retailers hope to attract customers to their own services by giving discounts and rewards to those using them, while also linking payments automatically to loyalty schemes and offering features like saved shopping lists.

The global market for mobile payments is forecast to grow about threefold by 2017 to some $721 billion (R7.6 trillion) worth of transactions, with more than 450 million users, according to research firm Gartner.

The growth could benefit retailers as the competition from a host of payment providers should help drive down the fees stores pay to have transactions processed – a service currently dominated by banks and card firms Visa and MasterCard.

“We view merchants as overall beneficiaries of the trend toward mobile payments,” Morgan Stanley said in a report in January. It estimated retailers in developed countries spent up to $150bn in 2012 to accept card payments.

However, it is still unclear how the retail mobile payment market will develop, with card companies and banks seen retaining a leading role in processing payments even if physical cards become obsolete.

Retailers’ apps might struggle to take off as customers are unlikely to be willing to use a variety of services for different stores, but the success of Starbucks in combining mobile payments with promotions shows big players can succeed. Starbucks, the biggest coffee chain, launched its mobile payment and rewards app in 2011, and has 10 million users.

Dozens of top retailers in the US, including Walmart, Target and Best Buy, have announced plans to set up a joint digital wallet service – the Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX – though no launch date has been set.

An attempt to create a mobile payment app universally accepted by retailers has recently launched in Germany. Yapital, owned by e-commerce firm Otto, has gone live in thousands of stores. It also allows users to pay online and make peer-to-peer transfers.

Yapital chairman Nils Winkler expects that of the 200 initiatives in Europe now, just a few will survive, with apps tied to retailers more likely to win than those by telecom and card firms.

Tesco, the third-largest retailer, which pioneered the tracking of customer behaviour with its Clubcard loyalty card two decades ago, will launch its digital wallet this year, as it also starts offering current accounts. That is part of its eventual plan to use smartphones – and its Hudl tablet computers – to allow customers to scan products to buy them as they shop.

French supermarket group Auchan, Europe’s fifth-biggest retailer, launched its “Flash and Pay” electronic wallet about a year ago. It combines payments with coupons, loyalty cards, receipts and a shopping list feature.

Britain’s Centre for Economics and Business Research said there was a clear business case for digital wallets in terms of reduced costs and improved customer service and sales.

British retailers could have saved £463 million (R8bn) in transaction costs last year by shifting to mobile payments from cash, credit and charge cards, it estimates. – Reuters