MCX Is 'In It for the Long Game' Even with No Launch Scheduled

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As CEO of the Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) mobile wallet venture, Brian Mooney must remain calm as his company faces an increasingly stormy market with no product to show for its years-long efforts.

Apple Pay is approaching its one-year anniversary and winning over die-hard MCX supporters like Best Buy and Rite Aid, but MCX's CurrentC wallet is still in testing. Adding to that MCX's perceived leadership issues — Mooney became interim CEO in April after Dekkers Davidson left the post — and it would seem that MCX has lost considerable ground despite a strong early showing of support from the merchant community.

But Mooney, who was recently confirmed as permanent CEO, isn't letting any short-term setbacks decide the fate of the merchant mobile wallet venture, which has the backing of powerful retailers like Walmart and Target.

"We're in the first inning of a very long game and we're in it for the long game," said Mooney, a First Data and Bank of America veteran.

MCX's CurrentC wallet has been in the works for more than three years, and has been in private beta for the past several months. It is planning to launch a public test in Columbus, Ohio in the next few weeks, but it has not set a date for its nationwide launch or even for the end of its upcoming tests.

"We're looking for added feedback in Columbus and we'll combine that with feedback from the private beta and make a decision on a wider acceptance," Mooney said.

MCX was initially envisioned as a way to help merchants control consumer data while avoiding card interchange fees. Its platform is being designed to link to merchants' mobile apps and draw funds from automated clearing house transfers, which are less expensive than credit card payments.

"We're the last mile of the chain to the point of sale, and our owners have a strong desire to get us there," Mooney said. "We're not jumping on existing payment rails; we're building our own system."

Given MCX's vague timeframe, merchants that want to accept mobile payments today must pick another provider's technology — and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Apple Pay, Google, Samsung and PayPal are all among the large companies targeting in-store payments, with some products already in the market and others set to launch this year.

But CurrentC has recognizable brands of its own, Mooney said, noting that the venture's members include Sears, Exxon Mobile and Dunkin Donuts. It also has a cloud-based technology model that can be accessed from a wider range of mobile phones than Near Field Communication-based wallets like Apple Pay.

Mooney's predecessor once said he sees the popular ride-sharing app Uber as inspiration, and it's still possible for MCX to duplicate Uber's success by making payments a frictionless aspect of an overall shopping experience, said Richard Crone, chief executive of San Carlos, Calif.-based payments consulting firm Crone Consulting LLC.

"That's what every retailer wants," Crone said. "Starbucks has it and Dunkin Donuts has it. Their most loyal customers are attracted to this type of mobile payment experience."

While Mooney would not rule out the use of NFC, the venture is sticking to its plan to use QR codes at launch. QR codes can be displayed on any smartphone's screen, reducing concerns about compatibility.

"Our app will work across any phone," he said. "The other products are hardware-driven and people with one type of phone may not be able to make payment from another system."

CurrentC will initially be a standalone app, though in the future it will be embedded in merchants' apps. It will also focus on in-store payments, as opposed to in-app transactions. Currently, 40 merchants and 70 brands are co-owners of MCX.

The integration will be customized for each merchant, so there is no universal CurrentC deployment model, Mooney said. That customization is how CurrentC differentiates itself from other options, he said, adding the tailored deployments allow for customized offers that each merchant can deliver through their mobile apps, Mooney said.

In any form, MCX should benefit from the scale it brings to the mobile wallet market, said Steve Mott, principal of BetterBuyDesign, a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

"The real test for any of these mobile wallets — and there are many debuting over the September to October timeframe — is whether any of these guys can really drive usage," Mott said. "Will critical mass make the difference? That's an important premise."

MCX initially required exclusive agreements with its merchant members, though these agreements are expiring this month, leading some longtime MCX members to finally implement Apple Pay and other competing mobile wallets.

"Merchants are free to take other mobile payments," Mooney said. "We said many times before there will be multiple mobile payments in the marketplace."

The prior exclusivity drew the attention of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D, Conn.), who requested information from MCX about its exclusivity requirements. Blumenthal, who expressed concern over MCX merchants denying payment options to consumers, wants MCX to respond to his letter by the end of August.

"He's asking good questions, and we look forward to responding to him," Mooney said, adding the expiration of exclusivity clauses should address the senator's concerns.

The senator's letter may become an opportunity for MCX to tout the security plan behind CurrentC, Crone said.

MCX is using tokenization to shield payments data, according to the company. Tokenization replaces sensitive account information with a secure value called a token, which is meant to be worthless to fraudsters if they intercept it. Apple Pay and other digital wallet ventures also use tokenization to protect account data.

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