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PayPal tests NFC to expand payments services

PayPal is testing an NFC mobile payments application at two stores in Sweden while it continues to look for ways to expand access to its payments services.

PayPal has been experimenting with NFC for a while and recently incorporated NFC into the latest version of its Android app to enable peer-to-peer payments with two mobile phone users tapping their phones together to transfer money between them. The NFC payments app test is running in conjunction with two Swedish retailers and the Swedish developer Accumulate over a five day period.

“There has been some confusion out there,” said Anuj Nayar, director of communications for PayPal, San Jose, CA. “We are not anti NFC.

“We think it is a very interesting technology and we are looking at ways to use it,” he said. “It is one of the technologies that we are looking at – we are not betting the bank on NFC.

“Our wallet lives in the cloud and not on devices. There are plenty of ways to access your wallet in the cloud and NFC could be a great way to do that.”

Offline payments
The test is running for five days, during which time anyone who downloads the app from the Android store or Apple store in Sweden and enters their PayPal credentials can receive an NFC sticker when they arrive at one of the two stores so they can tap to pay for items in the store.

PayPal parent company eBay has not been a big supporter of NFC – or near-field communications – technology. However, as a leader in the alternative payments space, it makes sense that PayPal would want to investigate NFC.

“While eBay maybe hasn’t been a big proponent, PayPal has been quite vocal about the opportunity,” said Drew Sievers, CEO of mFoundry, Larkspur, CA. “PayPal is the biggest jewel in the eBay empire, so their vision is, in my opinion, the most interesting driver for eBay corporate.

“PayPal’s publicly stated goal is to become as important a payment option offline as it is online,” he said. “NFC is a potentially disruptive technology that could offer fertile ground for PayPal’s offline payments endeavors.”

NFC has been embraced by numerous companies such as Google, Isis – which is a partnership of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile – and others. However, there are significant challenges facing these companies’ efforts to expand NFC as there are still a limited number of mobile phones available that support NFC.

Additionally, retailers need to upgrade their point-of-sale technology to be able to support NFC.

However, PayPal – as an alternative payment solution – also faces the challenge of getting retailers to accept PayPal payments if it were to try for a broader NFC roll out.

“PayPal faces the same challenges with NFC as everyone else in the ecosystem: NFC-enabled phone penetration combined with merchant acceptance penetration,” Mr. Sievers said.

“In fact, they face an additional challenge since nearly every existing NFC-enabled merchant takes Visa, MC, Amex, and Discover, but those same points of sale don’t take PayPal yet,” he said.

“So PayPal has two things to sell: NFC acceptance and PayPal acceptance. That’s a tough sell.”

Long-term strategy
While the NFC test is limited, it is another example of how PayPal is trying to bring its technology to bricks-and-mortar retailers. PayPal wants to get merchants to use PayPal and is looking for ways to embed PayPal in the shopping experience via applications, deals and a variety of other merchant services.

“EBay is recognizing that NFC is one of those things that would enable them to grow more in a physical retail environment rather than providing online or electronic transactions,” said John Devlin, London-based group director of AutoID and Smart Cards at ABI Research.

However, it is likely to be some time before PayPal would be able to deploy an NFC solution on any kind of scale.

“This is something that they are thinking about on a medium to long-term basis,” Mr. Devlin said.

“In the next couple of years, NFC is really going to be used at the local or national market level rather than an international basis,” he said. “Once it becomes more widely available, that is when PayPal would be more actively interested in pushing ahead.

The sticker model of NFC – where an NFC sticker is placed on a mobile device to make it compatible with an NFC reader – is more of a limited solution.

“It is not able to plug into the handset and take advantage of all of the different smartphone functionality,” Mr. Devlin said.

“It has advantages in that you can upgrade existing handsets quickly and easily but I don’t think anyone is really pushing ahead with stickers for a long-term consumer solution on a mass market level. This indicates that this is a trial rather than a precursor to a wider deployment.”

Proximity payments
PayPal expects to do $3.5 billion in mobile payments this year using its existing payments solutions.

The NFC mobile app test is another way that it is experimenting with new payments solutions as proximity payments grow

“This is what we’ve always done – experiment and test and be open to partnerships to drive innovation,” Mr. Nayar said.

“What we are going to start to see soon is the growth in proximity payments where you need to be in contact with a reader of some sort,” he said. “This can be done with Bluetooth, RFID and NFC is another way to do it.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York