Consumers moved $25 billion in the first quarter of this year using Zelle, the peer-to-peer (P2P) real-time mobile payments service introduced late last year. That puts consumers on track to spend an estimated $100 billion through Zelle this year, a 33-percent increase from 2017. While this indicates an impressive level of growth, it is less clear whether consumer acceptance will be widespread enough to fuel mass adoption by the nation’s financial institutions. But bank leaders can’t ignore the important role payments could play in their organizations.
Few financial institutions offer Zelle to their customers. Zelle lists 113 financial partners, a fraction of the more than 10,000 U.S. banks and credit unions. Twenty-nine banks have launched the service so far, including the seven big banks that partnered together to form Early Warning, the company that owns Zelle. (The consortium also owned Zelle’s predecessor, clearXchange, which was deactivated shortly following Zelle’s September 2017 launch; Zelle’s transaction data includes clearXchange.)
The biggest banks hold the lion’s share of deposits—the consortium accounts for more than 40 percent of domestic deposits, according to an analysis of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data—so many consumers already have access to Zelle.
“P2P really works when all of your friends and family can use it,” says Jimmy Stead, the chief consumer banking officer at $31.5 billion asset Frost Bank. Frost was an early Zelle adopter, signing on with clearXchange in September 2016. He says customers love it, and use of the service has grown by roughly 300 percent over the past year.
Zelle is free for consumers and easily accessible through their bank’s online and mobile banking channels. (Consumers can use the Zelle app if their bank hasn’t launched the service.)
Early Warning’s efforts to generate buzz around the Zelle brand—most notably through a series of TV ads featuring Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs—help partner banks get their customers on board. And Zelle only has to convert existing bank customers to the service, while services like Venmo have to attract individual new users, notes Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors.
A lack of interoperability between payments services has dampened mobile P2P adoption by consumers, says Talie Baker, a senior analyst at Aite Group. “[Zelle] will be the only interoperable network for mobile P2P payments once all the banks get on board with it—and it basically is right now because of their partnership” with Visa and Mastercard, she says. Eventually, “a bank that’s not participating in [Zelle] is going to have a hard time being in business.”
Eighty-four of the financial institutions partnering with Zelle have yet to launch the service, and the rest of the industry is waiting in the wings. But implementation isn’t as easy as just flipping a switch.
“This is a very complex system—it’s spread across multiple banking platforms, multiple electronic data providers,” says Frank Sorrentino, CEO of $5.2 billion asset ConnectOne Bancorp in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The bank plans to launch Zelle in August. A Zelle spokesperson confirms the payments system must be integrated with the bank’s core, which includes integrating messaging, and putting policies and procedures in place around risk management and customer support.
It’s interesting to note that the Zelle TV spots feature a diverse cast of actors, not just millennials. Stead says that adoption leans toward Frost Bank’s younger customers, but older customers are using the service, too. Cross-generational payments—a college kid getting rent money from mom and dad, for example—are common. This sets Zelle apart from the millennial-heavy Venmo, which doesn’t put funds directly into a bank account (users have a Venmo balance) and has a lower average transaction compared to Zelle.
But the payments space isn’t poised to end like Highlander, the 1986 Sean Connery film in which immortal beings fought until only one survived. Connery may have said “there can be only one,” but there doesn’t have to be—and there’s unlikely to be—one winner here. Venmo is also growing with consumers, with its social media-like feed, debit card and new partnership with Uber. “[Venmo is] hardly suffering as a result of the launch of Zelle,” says Shevlin.
In today’s competitive deposit market, payments should be a part of any bank’s core deposits strategy, says Shevlin. Services like Zelle can help keep deposits in the bank, while an institution that offers an outdated solution—or doesn’t offer one at all—may find its deposits lured away by a competitor, whether that’s a Zelle bank or a fintech account like Venmo.