HSBC may seem like an enthusiastic supporter of third-party wallets, taking the rare step of supporting Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay. But these partnerships may prove to be mere stepping stones for a much bigger mobile strategy.

The bank is working with the three "Pay" brands to build an audience on all major mobile platforms before taking any serious steps toward building its own wallet app. The bank is still cautious, however, because of the expense that approach would involve.

"We are having conversations about the next step for us," said Pablo Sanchez, head of retail banking and wealth management for HSBC in the U.S. and Canada. "Given the pace of innovation in payments, nothing is off the table…it's not about the payments but everything else."

The bank's ultimate goal is to earn 'top of wallet' status for its cards among consumers, regardless of the venue it's using for mobile payments. "It's about making sure we have the right set of products and services out there that people are using and making it easy to deploy," Sanchez said.

HSBC recently announced support for Samsung Pay, giving the bank coverage across Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung's initiative. HSBC is unusual among banks in supporting all three brands, though each of these brands makes it difficult for banks to set themselves apart from their rivals from within the app.

"Apple Pay is the dominant one for our customers, but we've also gotten feedback from consumers that want to use the other wallets," Sanchez said, adding the prevailing strategy in the banking industry is to go with the operating system with the most users. "To be fair, all banks will get there in supporting all three wallets. There's no way you can be the primary everyday bank for people without offering payments in all of those venues."

The difference with HSBC, Sanchez said, is it wanted to complete the third party wallet circuit as early as possible.

"We want to be able to put a bank branch in everyone's hand, and that includes mobile payments along with mobile banking," Sanchez said. "We have a slate of investments in all digital product areas, and supporting third party mobile wallets is a way to get in there quickly and serve all consumers right from the start."

Payments can also be a catalyst for other financial services, given the attractive demographic that heavily uses smartphones for transactions, Sanchez said, adding HSBC reported 30 million digital transactions in 2015. A significant portion of that comes from affluent consumer segments using Apple Pay and other wallets for restaurants and gas stations, making them prime for cross sell.

Responding to the "digital revolution" means engaging consumers on their terms, Sanchez said. "We don't have a huge brick and mortar franchise compared to some of the other large banks, so we have to use digital more to get in front of people."

That sounds like an argument in favor of HSBC building its own branded mobile wallet. The ink was barely dry on Apple Pay's announcement when the calls for banks to build their own apps began, with the goal of either addressing Apple Pay's shortcomings or avoiding its fees and brand leverage.

Several banks are already there. Wells Fargo is building its own mobile payment system, as are Capital One and RBC. JPMorgan Chase is partnering with the Merchant Customer Exchange on the pending Chase Pay.

Bank of America, by contrast, has said it prefers to support third-party wallets rather than enter the market with its own app and confuse consumers. The bank was one of the first Apple Pay supporters, but it suffered for it when an early glitch led to B of A customers being double-charged for mobile payments.

Having a branded mobile payments app is likely inevitable for most institutions, according to Tim Sloane, vice president of payments innovation and director of the Emerging Technologies Advisory Service at Mercator.

"When you look at the attributes of the mobile handset and all of the data it gathers, financial institutions need to engage their card holders more to learn the context of how users are making transactions," Sloane said. "Financial institutions need to think about how to make financial advice practical and credible, and the only way to do that is through a mobile app, to collect data about where consumers are and how they are transacting."

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