At the risk of turning into the Victor Meldrew of retail payments, I want to make a point about something. When I wrote about some bad experiences with contactless a couple of weeks ago, I did it because I genuinely care about this stuff, and I genuinely want the contactless experience to get better. I don't think the blog would be useful, particularly to my colleagues in the industry who read it, if it never contained criticism, so long as that criticism is well-founded and honest. Similarly with prepaid. I really like prepaid, I really want it to succeed and I really get upset when it doesn't work as well as it should.
Prepaid is growing. In the last five years, the volume of card transactions in Europe has grown about 9% per annum but the value has grown 7% per annum (because the average transaction size has fallen) and most of that growth has actually come from prepaid cards [F. Burelli. "Profitability dynamics of card payments" in Nordic Card Markets, Stockholm (Jan. 2010)]. Looking forward, the outlook appears to be pretty rosy. Yet I can't help feeling that prepaid isn't where it should be. My recent experiences with prepaid have been pretty good. I had a Visa prepaid card (which has just expired) that we were using as our "house" card at home: the kids used it when they needed to run to the supermarket or buy stuff for school. It had a simple web interface, I could see what they had been spending the money on and I could easily top it up from my debit card. Best of all, it didn't have a name on it, so if they lost it then no-one could use it in shops (because it's a chip and PIN card) or online (because they wouldn't know the name or address associated with the card). Now that it's expired, I got my eldest to go and get an Orange Cash card which annoyingly has a name on it (review to be posted shortly), so we'll see if that can take over as house card.
But I digress. Right now, I am annoyed with prepaid. Just as I was leaving for the airport, I remembered that I had less than $100 on my Travelex US Dollar prepaid card. As I was going to be in the US for a few days, I'd need a bit more to cover meals etc so I decided to load a couple of hundred more dollars. Now, obviously I wasn't going to bother to do that at the airport given the palaver I went through last time: I had £50 in cash in my pocket and I stopped at a Travelex booth in Heathrow to add it to my card and it took about a quarter of an hour and involved taking photocopies of my passport, the card, the receipt as well as answering security questions. The process was, presumably, designed to drive up the cost of prepaid cards to keep them beyond the reach of the poor.
Naturally, I thought that there would be some way to top up online, so I entered my 16-digit card number, my username and password and logged in to my cash passport account, only to find that there is no option for reloading (only for changing PIN and looking at transaction history). I went back to the home page and found that there's a separate option for reloading, I clicked that, and was asked to enter the first six digits of my card number. This took me back to the account screen. I went back round again, and somehow found another link (I can't remember what it was now) that asked my for the first six digits again and then took me to a reload screen. I entered the number of my Visa card, my address, the CVV and the amount, and was met with a screen saying tough luck.
I wondered if it might be something to do with credit vs. debit, so I went round the loop again, this time using my Visa debit card instead. After typing in the amount, card number, address, CVV again, I got the same results. Much against my better judgement I decided to call, so I phoned the (mercifully) free phone number on the back of the card. I stupidly chose the option for speaking to an operator, and the line just went dead. So I dialled back and chose account services and then something else and then talk to an operator. I was shocked when a woman answered. After giving her my (I'm not making this up) card numbers, address, name, date of birth and a couple of other things, she put me through to another chap who said he would top up the card. I asked him if it was possible to do it via home banking and he said that it was and that he would e-mail me the details. After asking some more security questions, I started to give him my debit card number and he stopped me and said that he first had to check whether I was on the electoral roll at that address. I gave up, grabbed my BA Amex card and my John Lewis MasterCard and my Visa OnePulse and jumped in the cab.
All the way to the airport I was wondering why it was all so complicated. Why can't I load via the ATMs at the airport, or using an app on my iPhone or by PayPal. Prepaid should be a simple, inexpensive alternative to cash, not something that has you jumping through hoops! When I got the US, I decided to get another prepaid US$ card, but this time I would register it in the US so that I could have a US BIN and billing address (some stores, such as Levenger, will let you ship internationally but will only accept payment from cards with a US billing address). Although in the end I didn't have time, because I got sidetracked playing with my new Square, this does illustrate (once again) that there are lots of good reasons for wanting prepaid cards that are nothing to do with not being able to get a credit or debit card.
From the consumer side, prepaid allows consumers to test new opportunities and options without risking a lot of money or putting their bank accounts or credit cards on the line.[From PaymentsJournal - When It Comes to New Payments Technology, Prepaid Will Lead the Way]
This is a good point, but I feel there's another reason for thinking that prepaid will be developing in interesting directions, at least in Europe. You don't need to be a bank to offer prepaid services: the combination of an Electronic Money Institution Licence (ELMI) and a Payment Institution Licence (PI) means that any company can offer a full service: an open-loop prepaid card. I suspect that many of the companies applying for these licences are doing so because they want to use new technology to deliver new services that need payment, if you see what I mean. That is, they don't expect to earn money from the payments themselves, but from the value-added services that need the payments to take place.
I'll be looking out for trends around value-added at this year's Prepaid Conference in London on 13th-15th June 2011. In an act of magnificent generosity, the wonderful people at Clarion have given me a delegate pass for the conference -- worth an amazing ONE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY FIVE POUNDS -- to give away on this blog as a competition prize. So if you are going to be in London on those dates and you'd like to come along to meet practitioners, thought leaders and me, then all you have to do is be the first person to respond to this post telling me what the conference sponsors MasterCard were originally called when they started in 1966.
In the traditional fashion, this competition is open to all except for employees of Consult Hyperion and members of my immediate family, is void where prohibited and has been designed to be carbon neutral. The prize must be claimed within three months. Oh, and no-one can win more than one of the Digital Money Blog prizes per calendar year.
These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]