There has been a lot of activity lately around modernizing cross-border transfers through the use of blockchain and and cloud-hosted technology, but despite the potential savings in cost and time, none of these methods has caused a meaningful decline in the use of cash.
Finder.com, a financial and retail analysis company, estimates 80% of all money transfers out of the U.S. are done in-person using cash at locations such as Western Union stores. Finder.com assessed three-dozen transfer providers and collected data points on user experience, market size, number of countries, territory coverage and digital capabilities. It also looked at live transfers, online quote generation, site testing and other external ratings.
The gap between cash transfers and digital, which Finder.com reports has remained steady for several years, is a problem of perception, Chow said. Finder.com's research found people are aware of alternatives to cash transfers, but don't feel the new options are trustworthy. More interestingly, people are unhappy with the state of money transfer, but don't differentiate among the methods available.
"96% of people are unhappy with international money transfer services, and 80% feel they are being ripped off," said Olivia Chow, a manager at Finder.com. "And that's both digital and offline."
Cross-border transfer is similar to lots of payment categories in one way: It was a steady business model for decades that has all of a sudden been disrupted by new technology. For example, blockchain — the distributed ledger system originally created for handling bitcoin payments — has emerged as a way to reduce the reliance on a physical network by powering digital transfers of government-issued currency.
That has led to a battle between older and newer transfer companies that has been cantankerous at times, but has not significantly changed the way in which consumers engage the market, according to Chow.
Part of the problem is fees, Chow said, adding most people are aware of exchange rates, but pay little attention to transaction fees. That level of fee uncertainty and concerns over security lead people back to familiar methods and brands.
Most of the major transfer companies would not comment for this story. One of the relatively newer companies — WorldRemit, which was founded in 2010 — contends it has made progress in earning digital adoption by focusing on mobile money services that use mobile airtime as a currency that can be transferred from user to user.
The model has been most successful in emerging markets, where it's considered a safer alternative to carrying cash.
"We have expanded rapidly so our users can now send from 50 countries to more than 140 countries around the world," said Alix Murphy, Director of Mobile Partnerships at WorldRemit. "With that strategy ingrained into our identity, we've been able to evolve and adapt quickly to the rapidly changing expectations of customers, particularly in the developing economies."
WorldRemit accounts for 74% of cross-border remittances to mobile money accounts, according to GSMA, and mobile is the company's fastest growing receive method from the U.S., Murphy said.
"We're addressing the shortcomings of [money transfer operators] while servicing the people who need these funds the most," Murphy said.
There are some key areas of improvement that can move the needle on digital for transfer companies, according to Chow.
First, companies need to expand their coverage map. None of the companies Finder.com examined has more than 90 countries available online. Streamlining the process to ensure consumers need to make only one transaction to get their money from point A to B is also important.
"Some providers require a domestic wire or ACH to be made to the provider before the provider sends the transfer internationally," Chow said. "Other providers operate like a digital wallet, where a user needs to deposit and withdraw money … This adds complications, can get expensive and can delay transfers."
Transfer companies additionally need to be more clear about the need to compare exchange rates or provide the mid-market rate when it comes to fees, she said. "Also, build trust with grassroots marketing in sender and recipient countries."