First Data's acquisition of marketing specialist Perka not only ups First Data's game in the loyalty space, it's also another sign that processors are willing to open their own wallets to ad digital expertise to woo merchants.

"As mobile continues to push its way into the payments value chain, acquirers and processors cannot become complacent," says Jordan McKee, an analyst at Yankee Group. "The status quo is being challenged and those that fail to evolve with the times will soon see the impact on their balance sheet."

First Data on Oct. 29 announced its acquisition of Perka for an undisclosed sum. Perka, which is now a First Data subsidiary, sells a loyalty program that allows small to medium-sized merchants to use location-based smartphone apps to engage their consumers through products such as the Perka Punchcard and Perka Flexpoints.

"There's plenty of scale. First Data operates with 6.2 million merchants, with a lot in the small to medium sized business space," says  Alan Chung, CEO of Perka, who envisions using First Data's bank relationships as a distribution channel for Perka's loyalty programs.  Perka will continue to operate autonomously, with its current management and product development teams.

First Data has also powered Starbucks' gift card, and Perka plans to build on that experience.

"For example, First Data's gift card program is enormous, and there is a lot of technology that we're excited to look at," Chung says. "Starbucks is a great example of what First Data has done to encourage mobile payments at a non-tech company."

First Data did not make an executive available by deadline.

Perka's cloud-based platform supports merchant-validated transactions, triggered offers, mobile messaging and customer relationship data.  To use Perka, merchants create a set of loyalty rewards and incentives tailored to their business. Consumers check in at a merchant using a smartphone app or by sending an SMS text message.

The check-in includes the customer's name and how actively they shop at the merchant.  The merchant validates each purchase and the consumer collects points to be redeemed. Businesses can also deliver customized message and special offers directly to consumers' phones to encourage repeat visits and added sales.

First Data has been actively adding technology through partnerships and acquisitions. It owns Clover, a mobile payments startup that First Data leveraged to build a point of sale platform for small to medium sized businesses. First Data has also partnered with Foursquare to support a program that allows credit and debit card holders to link their accounts to Foursquare's social network.  First Data also works with Go Daddy to provide online processing for small business that wish to launch their own payments sites.

Among other processors, Heartland Payment Systems recently invested in mobile point of sale technology provider Leaf, which offers a tablet geared specifically toward payment acceptance. Heartland has also partnered with LevelUp, SCVNGR's loyalty and mobile payment system. And Elavon recently entered a relationship with Realex to build digital payment services.

"Embracing mobile is a must, and recent moves by Heartland and First Data are proof of that. Forward-thinking players must align themselves with strategic partners and invest in mobile in the near term," McKee says. "Merchant demand for mobile payment, couponing and loyalty solutions will only continue to grow and acquirers and processors must be able to accommodate those needs."

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