Amazon Pay has real-world ambitions, but will face an uphill climb winning over retail competitors

To Amazon loyalists, the appeal of buying something on its marketplace largely boils down to the speed and ease of the transaction: It just happens in the background. The customer sees what they want, and within one click, the purchase is completed based on stored card information. It’s a bar traditional retailers have struggled to emulate, and it’s so convenient, it’s almost addictive.

Now, the e-commerce giant wants to bring that to retail stores outside of the Amazon ecosystem by way of Amazon Pay, which lets customers pay at physical checkouts with their smartphones using Amazon payment credentials.

It’s another way Amazon is exploring traditional retail, bolstered by its Whole Foods acquisition and the growth of Amazon Go stores. But snaking its way into retail competitors’ stores will be a tougher nut to crack.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment, but the company is reportedly looking to challenge mobile payment systems like Apple Pay by extending its Amazon Pay to physical retail, including at gas stations and restaurants — areas seen as non-competitive with major retailers. But experts say retailers’ resistance to onboard Amazon Pay is the principal obstacle to scaling it across traditional U.S. retail channels into 2019. Retailers’ concerns with data sharing, and consumers’ reluctance to use mobile payments in stores, are major obstacles that stand in Amazon’s way.

“If you’re a retailer and you think about Amazon, Amazon is a behemoth carrying all the product categories; you don’t want them to know exactly what people are buying and how much they’re paying whenever they use Amazon Pay,” said P.K. Kannan, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “This is purely a data play so they can be more competitive in their retail offerings.”

According to a Forrester-National Retail Federation study carried out last month, retailers aren’t exactly jumping to roll out Amazon Pay as an in-store payment option. The survey of retailers found that more than 80 percent had no intention of adding Amazon Pay. Brendan Miller, principal analyst at Forrester, one of the authors of the report, said Amazon Pay has a better chance among small businesses looking to maximize reach.

“Amazon has been moving into fuel and into some services, and I think that would make a lot of sense, especially for small businesses like mom-and-pop-type merchants,” he said. “If Amazon could create an app for a local coffee shop where [customers] could order their coffee through Amazon, there’s real value there.”

Small businesses aren’t likely to share the concerns about data sharing that larger, big-box players would have, he added. If Amazon Pay can make the customer experience easier, it’s a win.

But the results of efforts to onboard Amazon Pay at physical retail locations aren’t clear. Amazon added the capability to use Amazon Pay offline in early 2017, through a feature called Amazon Pay Places. During the same year, payment technology company First Data partnered with Amazon Pay to develop a point-of-sale solution for Amazon Pay at physical locations. The payment method was also rolled out at Moda Operandi and Amazon Books. Meanwhile, TGI Fridays locations launched Amazon Pay in July 2017; five months later, TGI Fridays launched an Alexa skill that integrates with Amazon Pay, allowing customers to order and pay through Amazon via Alexa. First Data and TGI Fridays did not comment when asked for a status update on Amazon Pay implementation.

Amazon has also been quiet about the technology’s offline traction. Amazon wrote in an email to Digiday that there are “tens of millions” of customers in more than 170 countries that have used Amazon Pay to make a transaction. Amazon hasn’t provided a public update on Amazon Pay transactions since February 2017, when it said it had 33 million customers, and it has been relatively quiet on Amazon Pay news since late last year. The press page, which aggregates articles from media outlets on Amazon Pay, hasn’t been updated since December 2017.

There are indications, however, that the company intends to grow Amazon Pay beyond its ecosystem. As of Wednesday, the Amazon Pay unit had 29 open jobs. The latest job posting for a senior product manager dated Dec. 14 gave hints of the company’s ambitions: “As part of the Devices division, which includes Alexa (the brain behind Amazon Echo), Fire tablets, Fire TV, and others, Amazon Pay we [sic] provides the means to export some aspects of this experience to partners and brands outside of Amazon and to the wider connected commerce landscape,” the posting said. In addition, a posting for a global marketing head of operations, dated Nov. 30, also speaks to Amazon Pay’s physical store ambitions, and plans to go head to head with PayPal: “We enable merchants to leverage our trusted, seamless buying experience to allow more than 300 million active Amazon customers to purchase from them — online, in-store, and across an array of consumer devices. Amazon Pay has now emerged as the alternative to PayPal and our business is growing at a fast pace, and we are poised to continue redefining consumer identity and payments.”

So Amazon hasn’t thrown in the towel when it comes to Pay. But beyond some retailers’ hesitation to adopt the system, consumer appetite, at least in the U.S., also hasn’t quite warmed to mobile payments in general. A Simon-Kucher & Partners survey this year, cited by PaymentsSource, suggested 5 percent of U.S. consumers preferred to use mobile wallets to pay, while 90 percent preferred paying with debit, credit or cash. The challenge Amazon Pay faces is convincing retailers and consumers that the payment method adds additional value than traditional vehicles.

Despite the roadblocks in the way of widespread implementation of Amazon Pay, the company may be biding its time until user adoption, and mobile payment use grows, said Kannan. Amazon may be pursuing a long game of slowly incentivizing Amazon Pay use within gas stations, restaurants and other non-big-box channels. Amazon Pay at Whole Foods is another potential vehicle to drive adoption. The bet is that as customers, particularly Prime members, get used to using Amazon Pay, they may demand larger retailers follow suit.

“The [challenge] is to incentivize consumers to adopt Amazon Pay at gas stations and restaurants to spur adoption; whether or not it will work is a long-term outcome,” Kannan said. “Amazon has a big kitty and can use their money [in incentives] to get people to come on board.”

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