By Lance Ulanoff 2015-01-29 12:32:04 UTC
Apple Pay, as Tim Cook told us during Apple’s earning call on Tuesday, is already posting some pretty impressive usage numbers.
Apple Pay makes up more than $2 out of $3 spent on purchases using contactless payment across the three major U.S. card networks.
Panera Bread tells us Apple Pay represents nearly 80% of their mobile payment transactions, and since the launch of Apple Pay, Whole Foods Market had seen mobile payments increased by more than 400%.
On the surface of things, these are astounding numbers. Apple’s mobile payment system, which enables both in-app and contactless point of sale payments, has only been around a few months. Has it succeeded where others, most notably Google Wallet failed?
“Tim Cook pointing the earnings call towards 2015 being the year of Apple Pay is a bull’s-eye for us,” said Jack Philbin, CEO and Cofounder of the mobile marketing company and early Apple Passbook partner Vibes.
“What Apple Pay can do for mobile wallet is what American Idol did for text messaging. It’s what the market needs [and] Apple has the clout to move markets,” added Philbin who also serves as the Global Vice chair of Mobile Marketing Association .
Philbin, who spoke to me the day after Cook’s comments, could barely contain his excitement and is thrilled about Apple Pay’s early report card. Still, something about the numbers bothered me. They almost sounded too good to be true.
As someone who’s been working with the Apple Passbook portion of Apple’s mobile payment system, Philbin thinks Cook’s comments carry significant weight, especially since the Apple CEO quoted retail partners like Panera Bread and Whole Foods. “You have to believe it, because these are major brands that won’t risk their profiles on that data.”
Which makes sense, and I think it’s clear the numbers are real, but there is something missing.
More detail, please
“When exact numbers aren't cited that is usually a huge flag that the base is tiny. For Apple to say that the majority of contactless payments are owned by them is a ludicrous statement,” Forrester Mobile Analyst Sucharita Mulpuru wrote me in an email.
Apple is clearly not making up these Apple Pay penetration numbers, so, what, exactly did Mulpuru mean? I got her on the phone for some clarity.
“I’m not saying that [Tim Cook] is lying or anything. I think the words are very carefully chosen. He’s choosing to obfuscate the most important detail: How many transactions are we talking about?”
Forrester's U.S. Mobile Payment outlook from its November 2014 Mobile Payments Forecast.
Image: Forrester Research
Forrester projected a $3.7 billion mobile in-person market for 2014, which means people using their phone to pay in-store. That could include contactless and the retailer scanning in a code from the phone, possibly for a loyalty transaction. The sector is projected to grow, according to Forrester, to $6.8 billion in 2015. These numbers do not include services like Uber, which let you pay via a mobile app. As far as Mulpuru is concerned, this discussion is about NFC-based payments, where the mobile phone is tapped on waved over a contactless point-of-sale system.
If Apple is pulling in $2 out of $3 mobile payment dollars for the three major credit card companies, that’s, potentially, billions of dollars. Big, right?
Not so fast, says Mulpuru. First of all, the retail transaction market is $3 trillion. “Apple would have to hit $30 billion to hit 1%,” said Mulpuru.
the question of how many people own NFC enabled phones. According to Pew Research. more than half of all Americans owned smartphones as of 2013. iDate put global NFC-enabled phone penetration at 278 million in 2014 and projected half a billion in 2015.
Again, good, compelling numbers. However Mulpuru insisted that only a fraction of the millions who bought the NFC-ready iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014 have enabled Apple Pay. “We’re talking a very small base of consumers and, of them, a very small percentage have even tried this or used it on a significant basis.”
Apple sold 74.5 million iPhones last quarter, a large number of which are surely iPhone 6 and 6 Pluses. It's not necessarily "a small base," but still only a fraction of the current global smartphone user base which is closing in on 2 billion .
Panera Bread, which was asked by Apple to share Apple Pay usage stats with them, wasn't prepared to share specific contactless pay numbers with me. The company's Executive Vice President, Chief Transformation and Growth Officer Blaine Hurst did tell me in an email, though, "We can say it is a relatively small, but growing percentage of POS transactions and a larger percentage of Panera iOS Application orders."
I wondered if Mulpuru’s negative NFC-payment outlook had anything to do with Google Wallet. It was first, after all, in the mobile, NFC-based payment game and paid dearly for it. Vibes’ Philbin, who is also a Google Wallet partner, certainly didn’t deny its reputation.
“Google Wallet launched payments and NFC so early. It was ahead of its time and the market was struggling with chicken and egg. No one had the chip in phone, Apple didn’t seem like it was going to integrate NFC… It wasn’t a big success because there wasn’t mass adoption,” said Philbin.
Lifting all boats?
Is Apple’s apparent success helping Google Wallet, creating sort of a Halo effect? “100%,” said Philbin. “People with Android phone are going to use Google Wallet. Definitely a case of 'when one wins, the other gains'.”
Once again, Mulpuru isn’t buying it. “Anecdotally, when we talk to retailers about Google Wallet users [they say,] ‘I could count the number of transactions on one hand.’”
But that's not necessarily so. Panera Bread's Hurst told me the company also accepts Google Wallet and Softcard. "As Mr. Cook pointed out in his earnings call, of the total mobile wallet transactions, Apple Pay represents 80%. Google Wallet, et.al. represent the remaining 20%," said Hurst.
I asked Apple for additional detail on Cook’s Apple Pay comments, but company representatives could only reiterate Cook’s numbers. It’s not that these numbers aren’t persuasive, it’s just that, as the ever-skeptical Mulpuru sees it, “the percentage of growth is going to be enormous anytime the base is really low.” Another way to look at it is: Apple told us they own a huge piece of the mobile payments pie, but that pie is about the size of crumb.
Philbin doesn’t really disagree.
“Every thunderstorm starts with a little bit of rain, and as Tim Cook said, this is only 'the first inning.’ If Starbucks is driving 16 percent of all its North American transactions via mobile, that speaks for itself. Marketers better pay attention and move quickly. We are in an age where things are changing extremely fast, and if you are not out in front, you are going to fall behind.”
BONUS: Testing out Apple Pay in the Big Apple
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