Most banks have been reluctant to offer person-to-person (P2P) payments services, although the market—which the research firm Aite Group estimates has at least $1.2 trillion in annual payments volume in the United States alone—probably deserves a closer look.
Writing in a May 2017 research report, Talie Baker, a senior analyst in Aite’s retail banking and payments practice, argues that a P2P payments capability could be a “competitive differentiator” for financial institutions as they fight for market share in a crowded mobile banking market. And it’s a market that could be heating up as both traditional banks and fintech companies with their own payments offerings jockey for competitive advantage. “The P2P payments market is seeing growth in the adoption of digital payments, and both bank and nonbank providers, including tech giants such as Facebook and Google, are looking for ways to secure a piece of the P2P payments pie,” she wrote.
Most financial institutions offer a P2P option either through the Zelle Network (formerly clearXchange), which is owned by a consortium of banks and launched its new P2P service in June, or Popmoney, which is owned by Fiserv, the largest provider of core technology services to the industry. A total of 34 institutions currently offer Zelle, including the country’s four largest banks—J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup. Alternative providers include Facebook Messenger, Google Wallet, Square, PayPal through either its PayPal.me or Venmo services, and Dublin, Ireland-based Circle.
With 83 percent of the digital P2P market share in the U.S., compared just 17 percent for the alternative providers, banks are clearly in command of the space. Some of that advantage is attributable to the industry’s large installed base of mobile customers. “They have a captive audience to start with … and that gives them a one-up on, for example, a Venmo or a Square that don’t have a captive customer base and have to go out and build their business through referrals,” says Baker. However, the banks need to be careful that their big market share advantage doesn’t result in complacency. “Alternative providers are catching up from a popularity perspective and are doing more volume, and banks probably need to step up their game a little bit from a marketing perspective to keep their market share,” Baker says.
Why hasn’t the P2P market grown faster than it has until now? For one thing, P2P providers generally will have a difficult time charging for the service since consumer adoption has been slow. “Checks are free today, it’s free to get money from an ATM, so if [the services] are not free, I don’t know if they’re going to be popular for the long haul,” Baker says.
Another obstacle is the enduring popularity—and utility—of cash. Baker says that many potential users are still comfortable using cash or checks to settle small debts with friends and family—which is still the primary use case for P2P services. “I love being able to make electronic payments personally, I just have found that my peer group is not as up on it,” says Baker, who did not give her age but said she was older than a millennial.
The biggest impediment to the market’s growth, however, is the lack of what Baker calls “ubiquity,” which simply means “being available everywhere, all the time.” Cash and checks are widely accepted mediums of exchange, while most P2P services run on proprietary networks. “All of them are lacking in interoperability, so if we want to exchange money and I am using Venmo and you are using Square, we can’t,” Baker says. Baker points out that this is not unlike how things worked when email was becoming popular in the early days of the internet, where you could only exchange emails with people who shared the same service provider. Of course, a common protocol eventually emerged for emails and Baker expects the same evolution to eventually occur in the P2P space.
Why should banks care about a free service like P2P payments? Baker says that based on her conversations, many smaller institutions “don’t seem to understand that P2P helps drive consumer engagement. I think that P2P services keep them right at the center of a consumer’s life and keeps driving engagement with the banking brand.”