Walmart Pay's Foreboding First Month

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Walmart Pay has been available nationwide at Walmart stores for several weeks, but consumers haven't taken much notice — a foreboding sign for those hoping for a breakthrough with merchant-branded mobile payment apps.

The QR code-based app rolled out in hundreds of stores beginning in May and went live in all 4,600 stores July 6. But at several Walmart stores in Arizona, cashiers and managers tell PaymentsSource it's rarely used. Cashiers are not always aware of it, and managers are frequently required to intervene to complete Walmart Pay transactions.

Even before Walmart Pay's full launch, the service did not drum up much enthusiasm. In a survey of consumer attitudes toward mobile payments 451 Research conducted in May, 5.5% of respondents said they planned to use Walmart Pay over the next 90 days, versus 17.8% who said they planned to use Starbucks' mobile app, which was a runaway success from the moment it launched mobile payment capabilities in 2009.

Walmart did not respond to questions about Walmart Pay's usage. The company previously said more than 20 million consumers regularly use Walmart's app, which features Walmart Pay as one of several options when the app launches.

Experts aren't surprised by the low enthusiasm for Walmart Pay. Though Walmart and Starbucks' payment capabilities look similar on the surface, the difference is that the Starbucks app relies on loyalty to its gift card and rewards program, whereas Walmart Pay relies on loyalty to the Walmart mobile app.

About 21% of all transactions in Starbucks' company-owned U.S. stores take place through its mobile app, Starbucks said, and this month Starbucks expanded its mobile payments app to Windows 10 phones. Last month, Starbucks extended the app's reach to 2,200 stores in China.

The most important factor driving Starbucks' mobile payments success is a deeply integrated value proposition, which enhances consumers' ability to earn loyalty points through its Starbucks Reward program, said Jordan McKee, a senior analyst for payments at 451 Research.

The Starbucks gift card is one of the top holiday gifts in the U.S.; in 2014, one in seven Americans received one as a gift. "We know that increased Starbucks Card sales drives My Starbucks Rewards membership and, in turn, traffic in our stores," Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said in January 2015. This increased volume also drives use of the app, which tracks gift card balances and rewards.

Starbucks—and Dunkin Donuts, whose mobile payment app also has strong usage— also has a distinct advantage in building popularity with users because of the frequency and habits of customers purchasing its products, according to McKee. "Starbucks is characterized by a daily purchase habit, which helps to drive adoption and recurring use," he said.

Walmart, on the other hand, sees its customers less frequently, which makes it harder to create and maintain a new habit around payment methods, McKee noted. "Even for its most loyal customers, it's doubtful they visit Walmart more than once a week, and it's hard to change habits without some element of frequency."

That's a common Achilles heel for merchants, and it may have been one factor dooming CurrentC, a QR-based mobile payments app created by the Merchant Customer Exchange consortium of retailers that shut down earlier this year after a pilot.

The other potential drag for Walmart Pay adoption is the lack of a value proposition compelling enough to change consumer behavior, McKee said.

"Walmart Pay is in the very early stages of adding value to the shopping experience, but it's likely not concrete enough to drive uptake at scale," McKee said.  

Starbucks made sure its mobile payments app tapped into its customers' existing habits and anticipated their needs.

"Starbucks has done a nice job of incorporating loyalty and rewards, in addition to integrating value-added features such as order-ahead into its mobile app," McKee said, noting that the perception of value is a key driver for consumer adoption of mobile payments and apps.

Walmart clearly will need to provide incentives to consumers to drive usage, said Aaron McPherson, an independent payments analyst.

"It's pretty clear at this point that simply using your phone to pay [minus more compelling features] is not enough of a benefit for most people to switch to a mobile payments app," McPherson said.

Enabling consumers to store and redeem coupons within the Walmart Pay app, or earn other discounts, are two possibilities that are within Walmart's reach, he speculates.

"None of these wallets will ignite until they integrate couponing [or other discounts] within the app,"  McPherson concluded.

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