Why Contactless, Not Cash, is King in Canada

Contactless, not cash, is king in Canada.

Brian Lang, president of Mastercard in Canada, said at a closed event in Toronto this week that 50% of transactions in the country are conducted via contactless payments and less than 30% involve cash.

Iain McLean, Mastercard’s senior vice president of market development in Canada, said Canada is outpacing the United States in contactless payments, largely because Canada was an early adopter of the EMV chip.

The chip, named after its original developers, Europay, Mastercard and Visa, is the global standard used for credit card chips. (Europay has been part of Mastercard since 2002.) While Canada adopted EMV in 2004, the U.S. didn’t come around to it until 2015.

McLean said Canada is still seeing 9% YOY increases in the share of total payments going contactless, adding that it’s just a few years until contactless as a payment method reaches a saturation point.

The U.S. is far from posting these kinds of numbers.

According to a recent report by management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, 56% of POS transactions in the U.S. are conducted using cards, but just 3.47% of cards have contactless capabilities. The report, “Why Banks Should Make Contactless Cards an Immediate Priority,” said only 0.18% of all POS transactions are contactless.

So, what made Canada an early adopter?

Malcolm Fowler, chief product and partnership officer for Moneris, a financial technology company specializing in payment processing, said there was “an opportunity to create ubiquity” in large part because Canadian merchants were looking for ways to ditch cash for digital.

He said accepting digital payments is quicker than having to make change and that saving mere seconds on each transaction can translate into millions of dollars over time.

There were also incentives in terms of security, as the underlying EMV technology was already found to be reliable. Fowler said Moneris used to see a lot of skimming before the rollout of EMV and that it’s been almost nonexistent since.

Additionally, taking more cash out of the payments equation meant reduced instances of cash being stolen by employees or robbers targeting POS locations.

Michael Weissglas, managing director of products and partnerships for Bank of Montreal, said going contactless is about displacing cash, which is slower as a payment method and doesn’t earn rewards for consumers or build loyalty with where they’re spending it.

Fowler and McLean told Bank Innovation that merchants saw a clear value in adopting contactless technology, which led to consumer confidence to pull out their contactless cards and use them for everyday purchases.

“Tapping is just really easy,” Fowler said.

McLean said nearly 95% of merchants in Canada now have point of sales systems that can accept contactless payments.

Fowler said the big question from consumers at the beginning of the contactless wave was not about security or fraud, but whether they would be embarrassed trying to pay contactless at a location where the technology was not available.

“It was a bit of a leap of faith,” Weissglas said.

Going contactless was a chicken-and-egg dilemma at first, he said, because it was unclear whether merchants would adopt the technology and whether customers would use it all at once. But converting to contactless can have significant payoffs for banks, per this Bloomberg report: “By transitioning to contactless, banks could boost profits by $2.4 billion and eliminate $22.2 billion worth of expenses in the next five years.”

It would appear Canada has its answer on this one.

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Jake Martin joined Royal Media Group in New York City in October 2018 as an Associate Editor for Bank Innovation. He was previously a Reporter with The St. Augustine Record, where he covered education, government, and the occasional "Florida man" story. He graduated from Elon University in 2011 with a B.A. in Journalism Print/Online. Jake can be reached at jmartin@bankinnovation.net.

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