One of the most fascinating business stories this Christmas season isn’t about how much people are spending or even what they’re buying — it’s about how they’re paying. Although a lot of people are familiar with using their phones to pay for a latte — think Starbucks — few people in the United States have started using a “mobile wallet” to any significant degree. The biggest players in the field are trying to change this by offering up holiday incentives to bring customers into the fold.
Google Wallet, the mobile payment system unveiled by the tech giant in 2011, is trying to entice customers by offering those who purchase gift cards using its system a $5 coupon in return. Customers who link the competing Apple Pay system to a Chase credit card can opt for a free music download. Softcard, the telecom companies’ mobile payment system, has also been attempting to woo customers with a variety of incentives and discounts.
When I read that Amazon was in talks to partner with big fashion retailers like J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Neiman Marcus, it got my attention. Despite Amazon’s leadership position in online retail, you typically don’t associate these higher-end clothing retailers with a mainstream site that targets essentially everyone.
If we were talking about a partnership between Amazon and Wal-Mart WMT -0.94% or even Costco, that would be far less surprising because of their parallels in broad customer bases and emphasis on low prices. But rather than partnering, Wal-Mart is making its own investments to level the playing field with Amazon. So why are fancier retailers like Neiman Marcus considering such a partnership? What are the risks? And do these risks outweigh the possible benefits? I think they do.
For retailers, this holiday season has been far from merry. Indeed, much of the cheer retailers have managed to generate has gone to consumers.
Retailing has become a multichannel free-for-all. To the brick-and-mortar giants, online retailers are no longer pesky niche players but life-threatening rivals. The online retail space itself has gotten crowded with formidable competitors. Established stores also must compete with each other and local mom-and-pops for the dwindling number of shoppers willing to brave the frequent snowstorms that hit much of the U.S. in this key shopping month. Add the growing threat of mobile platforms, and your average retailer, online or offline, senses danger everywhere.