SAN FRANCISCO—As digital technology has reshaped the acquiring business, some of the industry's biggest names are making splashy investments in mobile payments and merchant marketing.

"I'll give you a very specific word we don't use: ISO," said Frank Bisignano, chairman and chief executive of First Data. "It's a word I heard when I came here. We're not in business with ISOs, we're in business with sales partners." 

Over the past two years, First Data has expanded its focus from processing payments to also selling technology that helps businesses grow. The Atlanta-based company now describes itself as in the "commerce business," Bisignano said. "This isn't the First Data you once knew."

That message was shared by several of the industry's biggest players at the Electronic Transaction Association conference taking place in San Francisco this week

Ryan McInerney, the president of Visa, discussed plans to use his company's wealth of consumer data to create merchant loyalty and analytics programs. 

Over the past 18 months, Visa has created new internal teams to work directly with merchants and acquirers, McInerney said. One of those team members is Ramon Martin, who recently joined Visa from American Express as head of global merchant sales.

"We're taking all of the data, the experience, the network assets that we have as a company, and building them into a set of products" to help merchants grow, McInerney said.

For instance, Visa is developing dashboards that give merchants the ability to analyze online marketing campaigns. The dashboards are designed to pinpoint — at the time of the transaction — the type of offer that brought each customer into the store. Three months ago, Visa announced plans to link customer rewards programs to credit card authorizations, allowing merchants to offer discounts without using loyalty cards. 

The traditional acquiring business model is undergoing a rapid transformation, as merchants respond to consumer demands for mobile payments, McInerney said.

Making a comparison to the way Uber transformed the taxi industry, he encouraged acquiring executives to embrace the rapid pace of change. "It's an old industry, a new business, and it's happening everywhere," he said.

Separately, Jingming Li, the president and chief architect of Ant Financial, promoted the opportunities for global expansion of using Ant's Alipay to sell goods to Chinese consumers.

"There's no reason that that if a company that wants to sell to China, it cannot work with us to sell to 300 million members," he said, referencing the Alibaba affiliate's total user base.

To illustrate the high demand for U.S. products by Chinese consumers, he pointed to the rise of "shopping agents" at retail centers, such as the San Francisco Centre. The agents are hired by Chinese consumers to scout for deals and make purchases at major U.S. retailers. 

"This is a new industry and it's growing very strong," he said. 

The sharp rise in consumer wealth in China over the past three decades presents a huge opportunity for U.S. merchants, Jingming said. It's "probably the largest social shift we have seen in recent human history," he said. 

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