What's next for the U.K.'s contactless innovators?

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As contactless cards continue their momentum in the U.K., new use cases are popping up for the tap-and-go technology.

Contactless cards have exploded in popularity in the U.K. since being introduced in September 2007. In fact, contactless cards are becoming so widely used in the U.K. that around 3.4 million consumers almost never used cash at all, according to just released data from UK Finance, a trade association for the U.K. banking and financial services sector.

Contactless has shown considerable growth in the 10-plus years the technology has been available in the U.K. The number of contactless payments across debit and credit cards rose by 97 percent during 2017 to 5.6 billion, according to UK Financial. Almost two thirds of people in the U.K. now use contactless payments, and no age group or region falls below 50 percent usage, the data shows. Contactless cards accounted for 15 percent of all payments in 2017; that figure is expected to reach 36 percent in 2027.

Contactless in the U.K. “has been growing like crazy,” says Leo Nilsson, chief product officer at iZettle, a Stockholm-based payments company that operates in the U.K. and nine other European markets as well as Brazil and Mexico. The company is being acquired by PayPal for about $2.2 billion in a deal that is expected to close in the third quarter.

With fewer people carrying cash, contactless cards are also expanding beyond their more conventional uses like food and transportation. Just recently, for instance, Busk in London, a Mayor of London initiative, partnered with iZettle to allow street musicians in London to accept tap-and-go contributions, as well as cash.

The feature has been well-received by the buskers who are using it, says Kate Jones, program director at Busk in London. They’ve reported an uptick in their take-home pay, whereas a year ago, they reported a downturn since no one was carrying cash, she says. It’s profitable for buskers even though they pay a 1.5 percent fee to accept payments through iZettle.

Some charities have also begun piloting the use of contactless donation boxes at events and street locations around the U.K. as a way to encourage passersby to donate. On-street donations have been declining as cash falls out of favor, and 4 percent of U.K. charities polled are using contactless donation boxes as a way to combat this trend, according to a recent Barclays report.

Eleven national charities have piloted the use of Barclays' contactless donation boxes, according to the report by David McHattie, head of charities at Barclays, whose team provides banking services to charities. Because the boxes accept contactless as well as chip-and-PIN transactions, charities can receive card donations over the typical £30 contactless limit, providing donators with more flexibility, the report notes. The bank is in the process of rolling its contactless donation solution out more broadly across the U.K.

Another example is the Church of England, which recently announced plans to modernize the collection plate process by introducing portable card readers at more than 16,000 churches, cathedrals and religious sites. This is being implemented after a successful trial in about 40 locations last summer.

Several U.K. residents say they are also seeing contactless cards accepted by a growing number of mom-and-pop-sized service-oriented businesses such as barber shops. It’s a testament to how popular—and ubiquitous—this type of payment has become, they say.

“Many shops and services that were typically cash only now accept contactless,” says Areiel Wolanow, managing director of Finserv Experts LLC, a U.K.-based consulting firm.

Both Mastercard and Visa have set targets for terminals in Europe to accept contactless payments by 2020 and the U.K. is farther along than some other European countries. Almost every bank in the U.K. now issues contactless cards and many businesses—large and small—offer it as a payment option. By the end of 2017 there were nearly 119 million contactless cards in circulation, with 78 percent of debit cards and 62 percent of credit cards in the U.K. having contactless functionality, according to UK Finance.

This is a notable contrast to the U.S. where only a small sliver of U.S. credit and debit cards allow for contactless transactions. That said, a number of large issuers have announced plans to replace their existing cards with contactless cards and will be rolling these out over the course of the next year, says Jason Oxman, chief executive of the Electronic Transactions Association.

Phil Sealy, principal analyst at ABI Research, says he expects the number of contactless cards in the U.S. to rise to about 285 million by the end of 2020, up from about 70 million to 75 million at the end of 2017.

In the meantime, more than 50 percent of U.S. merchants—more than 2.5 million—are enabled to accept contactless transactions, Oxman says. At many of these locations, consumers are currently using contactless technology to pay with their phones as opposed to using contactless cards, since they aren’t as readily available yet in the U.S.

“Whether it’s the phone or tapping the card, the time savings and the security are going to drive adoption,” Oxman says.

The contactless movement in the U.S. market will likely get a boost in the coming years as major transit systems switch over their technology, industry participants say. In Washington, D.C., the system is being revamped over the next several years to accept payment through contactless cards and smartphones. Transit systems in Boston, New York and Chicago are also moving ahead with contactless fare payment systems.

“Transit is a huge boost for contactless deployment,” Oxman says.

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