One thing that might keep Northwest Federal Credit Union President/CEO Chris McDonald up at night is when a member uses Apple’s Passbook digital wallet or PayPal to make purchases at restaurants, entertainment venues and gas stations on a daily basis and then once a month or so, cash is shifted from the member’s Northwest shared draft account to Apple or Google.
What the $2.6 billion credit union in Herndon, Va., loses in that scenario, said McDonald, is just about everything. The transaction data is opaque to Northwest, interchange fees vanish, and the member relationship could potentially erode.
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That is why his credit union has joined with a couple dozen others to launch CU Wallet - designed to be a digital wallet for the 21st century consumer - but he stressed in an interview that maybe CU Wallet will prevail, maybe it won’t, but what is inevitable is that digital wallets will soon stampede across the marketplace and one thing McDonald is determined to avoid is becoming roadkill in what he believes is a coming consumer adoption of tools that let users pay by smartphone.
If anybody tells you they know where wallets are going, they are clairvoyant or insane,” said Jeff Kline, CEO of MEMBERS Development Co., a research and development CUSO owned by 40 credit unions. “They could be completely cut out of this,” he warned about credit unions not getting involved. “That is why you cannot ignore wallets.”
One sliver of good news is digital wallets are for financial institutions to win, said Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director of mobile for Javelin Strategy + Research, who has extensively studied consumer attitudes towards wallets. She warned about the rising clout of what she calls the gang of five: nonbank financial innovators that include PayPal, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. All have expressed keen enthusiasm for winning digital wallet users. Because consumers still have the highest trust for financial institutions, this is a space for credit unions to excel if they take bold actions that resonate with what members want, she added.
The adoption of digital wallets has been markedly slower than pied pipers predicted a couple years ago but wide acceptance isn’t that far off, predicted Julie Moran, vice president of support services at the $5.1 billion Digital Credit Union in Marlborough, Mass.
“I believe we will see broad use within one to two years,” Moran said. “The more consumers use their smartphones, the more they will want to use them.”
Disintermediation is already is occurring, said Amanda Smith, manager of emerging products at CO-OP Financial Services in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. As proof, early adopters are already using PayPal, Google Wallet and others and that increases the urgency for credit unions to stake out their own digital wallet positions before they lose their natural advantages with members, she explained.
“(DCU is) placing many bets, on various digital wallets, so we will be ready,” said Moran, who pointed out that the credit union is a CU Wallet supporter but also offers Visa’s V.me tools to its members. Since it is currently unknown which wallet will prevail, Moran said the strategy is to be ready with multiple options so that DCU will be there when the member is ready.
While the $5.4 billion Bethpage Federal Credit Union in New York, does not have a digital wallet yet, plans are in the works to roll one out within six months, said Bob Hoppenstedt, senior vice president of operations and marketing.
“We may have all of them,” said Hoppenstedt who clarified that, in his opinion, it’s highly unlikely that there will be an early winner in the wallet wars. His goal is to be ready to offer members several wallet choices.
“We know we have to participate in this,” said Hoppenstedt. “We are hesitant to jump into this because we don’t know what we are jumping into.”
Financial technology company FIS is still hoping to widen the digital wallet space with its smartphone payment service.
Hoppenstedt likely speaks for some credit union executives who want to plant a stake in the digital wallet space. The downside is others might be reluctant to embrace Betamax when it’s VHS that vanquishes the other format, he offered. As a result, going all in on one digital wallet might not be a smart move in this early stage of the market.
Meanwhile, clarity isn’t likely to come quickly, some experts have said. Rather, it will be a five to 10-year process, predicted Doug Brown, senior vice president of e-banking with financial technology company FIS.
“The key thing for credit unions (is) they can’t wait for the end game to be defined before acting. They can’t let their customers be cherry-picked. That’s why it’s important for credit unions to be informed.”
With the litany of options available, some credit unions may be confused about which wallet to embrace.
“Things are moving so fast in payments, you cannot say, ‘this will be the solution.’ You don’t know where this will end up, but you have to be in it,” said Bruno Sementilli, president/CEO of the $782 million Quorum Federal Credit Union in Purchase, N.Y., whose credit union is one of the founders of CU Wallet.
He added, “If you are betting on interchange (fee income) for the next 10 years, you are deluding yourself. Interchange is in peril and you need to prepare your credit union for what comes next.”
Preparation may mean being ready with new payment formats and also being open to new sources of income to replace what some see as the inevitable shrinkage of interchange, Sementilli said.
“Be thankful this is moving so slowly,” said Peter Olynick, a digital payments expert with Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group in Charlotte, N.C.
That might give late deciders opportunities to plunge into digital wallets but, suggested Olynick, there are some signs of adoption, which can make a strong case for getting on board now.