The Tipping Point for Digital Payments Is Closer Than You Think

  • JJ Hornblass
  • January 8, 2015
  • 1

canstockphoto10811336It is cold here in New York, brutally cold. When I woke up this morning, the temperature with the wind chill was -6 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so cold outside it hurt.

I mention the cold because it led me to transform into a digital payments customer — this morning. My transition says something about the tipping point for digital payments broadly.

As I walked to the office, I decided that I wanted a coffee from Gregory’s, a new, high-quality coffee chain here in New York, but the thought of reaching into the inside pocket of my coat to fish out my credit card just chilled me further. Not to worry: I had Gregory’s smart LevelUp app on my phone, which was in my front pocket; I would use that for my purchase — and keep my coat closed.

And then it dawned on me — the digital payment was better. I had, in that moment, eliminated the card transaction. And what also dawned on me was that it was only one transaction that made the transformation. According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent payments study, the average adult conducted 1.4 noncash transactions per day in 2012, the last year for which the Fed has made such data available. While the Fed does not disclose cash transaction volume, on average there could not have been many more cash transactions per day — let’s say two or three. That means the one transaction I conducted this morning is a great percentage of the total transactions I will likely conduct today. (That the holiday season is over makes it even more so the case.)

The upshot: the tipping point for digital payments is just a transaction away for most people.

The conventional industry wisdom has been that adoption “will take a while,” that “digital payments will get here eventually.” But if the adoption is facilitated by potentially fewer transactions than previously thought, perhaps that conventional wisdom needs adjustment.

Additionally, perhaps the goals for payments providers should change, too. Google Wallet tried to usurp the physical wallet, and failed. But perhaps Google Wallet would have been more successful had it simply aimed to facilitate but one digital transaction, not every transaction a consumer conducts. Google Wallet folks will argue that they tried just that by doing deals with Duane Reade and the like, but effectively Google Wallet was still arguing that it was a “replacement for the physical wallet.”

Indeed, the marketing for Apple Pay continues to play on this notion that digital payments can comprehensively replace the physical wallet. Consider the Bank of America ad below — it pitches the ubiquity of Apple Pay, even as Apple Pay remains anything but ubiquitous.

If only Bank of America, et al, hung around for that one transaction on a cold day in New York.

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JJ started the first iteration of Bank Innovation back in 2007, and has been working on it ever since. He also serves as President & Chief Executive Officer of Royal Media, Bank Innovation’s parent. He founded Royal in 1995 and oversees all aspects of the New York-based diversified media company. Prior to forming Royal, JJ was on the editorial staff of American Banker, the daily newspaper, and worked as an editor of a business magazine in Hong Kong. As a reporter and editor, he has won journalism awards from the National Press Foundation, Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Foundation, and the Reader’s Digest Foundation. He has a BS in Economics from Yeshiva University and a Master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was also a Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School of Banking. He lives in New York City with his wife, two daughters, and son. He counts among his accomplishments one New York City Marathon, two New York City Triathlons and the 2010 Father’s Day 5K, the first race he ever ran with his daughters. He can be reached at or 212-564-8972.

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