10 payment trends for 2012

As we head in 2012, we gaze into our crystal ball to identify some key trends in the U.S. payments sector. Of course, it should always be recognized that the macro environment will have a significant impact on the payments sector. At present, there are signs of U.S. economic recovery, but this recovery remains fragile.

  1. Continued growth in credit card spending: in recent quarters, credit card spending has recovered significantly from the declines it experienced in 2008-09. This is partly due to economic recovery, but issuers are also increasingly marketing credit cards as effective payment tools for everyday purchases. The Nilson Report recently predicted that credit card’s share of payments volume will rise from 24.5% in 2010 to 31.0% by 2015. In addition, expect issuers to try to drive significant growth in small business credit card spending in 2012. This will of course depend on growth in small business optimism, but card’s share of small business expenditure remains very low, and issuers see huge growth potential in this sector.
  2. Growth in debit card spending, but with some headwinds: Debit cards have enjoyed very strong growth over the past decade, and this growth should continue in 2012 as consumers switch payments volume away from cash and checks. However, there are a number of factors that will eat into debit cards growth trajectory, including: lingering impacts from the October 2011 debit card fee debacle, banks dropping debit rewards in response to lower debit interchange rates, and (again related to interchange) banks increasingly pushing credit cards (with rewards) for everyday spending.
  3. Strong growth for prepaid cards: Issuers increased issuance and marketing of prepaid cards in 2011, and this resulted in very strong prepaid card volume growth. We expect this growth to continue in 2012, as consumers get increasingly comfortable with using such cards, and as issuers find new spending applications for these cards (online and offline).
  4. Mobile payments to gain some traction: mobile payments was one of the hot payments topics of 2011, with the launch of Google Wallet, development of the Isis joint venture, Visa and MasterCard developing mobile payment strategies, and Square reaching 1 million merchants. Bank Technology News recently reported that sales of NFC-enabled smartphones are expected to grow by 129% in 2012, and this will further propel mobile payments emergence. However, there will continue to be significant challenges for mobile payments in 2012, including: merchant acceptance, tensions in mobile payments partnerships, privacy and security concerns, as well as the need to develop the value-added features that will encourage consumers to switch from existing payments methods. It is also worth noting that much of the hype around mobile payments is based on a vision of using a smartphone for point-of-sale purchases. However, note that two big growth areas for mobile payments in the near term are person-to-person payments and e-commerce.
  5. Card charge-off and delinquency rates to “normalize”: issuers net charge-off and delinquency rates spiked dramatically following the financial crisis, and have fallen sharply over the past two years. There are definite signs among many leading issuers that these declines are abating. However, some leading issuers (notably Bank of America and Citi Cards) continue to have relatively high rates, so will work to reduce these further in 2012. Other leading issuers now have rates that are below historic averages, so may be willing to loosen underwriting criteria somewhat in order to grow lending.
  6. Focus on customer relationship optimization: as competitive intensity increases in 2012, issuers will continue to invest in post-acquisition customer communications (activation, retention, cross-sell, upsell and share of wallet growth). Issuers will increasingly seek to build data-driven customer communications (although significant internal hurdles will remain).
  7. Emergence of more customer-centric product portfolios: some issuers have been revamping their product suites over the past two years. This process should continue in 2012 and will involve: streamlining existing portfolios (to eliminate multiple cards with very similar characteristics), introducing new products to reach new audiences (e.g., high-end and secured cards), versioning of cards with higher fees for high rewards earning, as well as closer integration of emerging payments into the product suite.
  8. Continued APR tiering, but with changes: with issuers likely to focus on outstandings growth in 2012, they will look to be price competitive. In such a fragile economic environment, the Fed is unlikely to change its interest rate policy in the coming months, which means that issuers will continue to use variable APRs. They will also continue to use tiered APR pricing, but expect some downward pressure on the lower and upper tiers.
  9. Growth of introductory offers on balance transfers: issuers who do not plan to compete aggressively on APRs will look instead to build outstandings through 0% introductory offers on balance transfers for 12+ months, in some cases accompanied by lower BT fees for transfers made during an initial period.
  10. Rewards: with most issuers eliminating rewards on debit card spending, issuers will seek to grow their credit card rewards programs, as this will drive volume and interchange revenue. However, with the focus on cost containment, issuers will look beyond interchange revenue to fund these programs, including: imposing annual fees (to fund high-level rewards programs), offering merchant-funded programs, and sharing funding with other departments for relationship reward programs.

How do card issuers prepare for an emerging payments future?

First Data recently reported 10.6% y/y growth in U.S. credit card volume, up from 9% in 2Q11 and 8.2% in 1Q11.   As the economy takes some (often faltering) steps towards recovery, there is significant opportunity for credit card issuers to build on this strong momentum, and win share from other payment methods, particularly cash and checks.

However, the payments industry is on the cusp of significant change, as technological innovation is leading to the emergence of new payment methods.  Much industry coverage this year has focused on the introduction of both online online person-to-person (P-to-P) and mobile (online and at point-of-sale) payments.

So, how should issuers respond to this emerging payments landscape?  Some are developing new types of plastic (e.g., integrated debit/credit cards like the Fifth Third Duo Card; prepaid cards; smart cards).  And issuers are also investing in non-card payment methods, with many launched online P2P services this year, and some starting to get involved in mobile payments consortia (e.g., Citibank in Google Wallet; Capital One and Chase said to be talking to Isis).

In addition to developing new products, there are four other areas that issuers should focus on, in order to position themselves to take advantage of emerging payments opportunities.  These are:

  • Strategy: create an overall payments strategy that that provides a blueprint to guide investment in both existing and emerging payments solutions.  The strategy should focus on developing a long-term migration plan that encourages the customer base to use emerging payments, while also optimizing returns from existing payment products
  • Structure: develop a dedicated unit to oversee emerging payments investments and working to build organization-wide understanding of—and commitment to—an emerging payments future
  • Intelligence: generate and leverage intelligence on emerging payment technologies, competitor initiatives, and the voice of the customer
  • Partnerships: build on the growing consensus that no one can go it alone in the emerging payments landscape to develop relationships with various stakeholders in the emerging payments space (e.g., card brands, IT companies, payment processors), stay at the cutting edge of developments, and be poised to benefit if and when certain emerging payments gain real traction