Mobile commerce isn’t waiting for the “wallet” to arrive

When it comes to mobile commerce, much attention has been paid to the idea that the smartphone will eventually become the wallet. The New York Times is impatiently waiting for this moment to arrive. I’ve commented on the idea, stating that the moment is inevitable. Yet, despite the large amounts of attention paid to it, the mobile wallet is far from the most interesting thing that is happening in mobile commerce.

wallet, after all, is “a small folding case, usually of leather, for holding paper money, documents, etc.”. The wallet is merely an object that stores the instruments of transaction & commerce. The wallet alone cannot effect the most interesting element of commerce: the interaction necessary to facilitate the exchange of goods, services or ideas. As Andrew Kortina, co-founder of the payments service Venmo recently said, “when we say ‘future of the wallet,’ I think we mean not the physical object itself, but we consider wallet as a symbol for economic exchange.”

When viewed through this lens, there is an abundance of mobile commerce happening today. In the use cases Kortina cites, mobile commerce is happening primarily in areas where new functionality or experiences are being enabled:

  • Chipotle’s mobile app allows patrons to order ahead & skip the line
  • Starbucks’ mobile app combines the exchange of money, coupons and rewards into one action
  • Bonobos’ in-store mobile experience turns the customer-associate interaction into a lasting relationship
  • Square Wallet replaces the “wallet” with your face & name, allowing for a personalized customer experience from the outset
  • Uber makes the payments experience “fade into the background entirely”
  • Venmo makes it far easier & more fun to transact with friends

In each of these popular mobile commerce use cases, the wallet fades away. There is no longer a need to present a physical ID card, credit card, coupon or loyalty card. The apps store and surface the relevant information in the background: name, picture, payment credential, phone number, e-mail, discount / referral codes, previous purchase information, etc. In each case, the user has already stored the relevant information with the application and merely authenticates the information at the time of transaction. By reducing the complexity of presentment, the focus can shift to creating more valuable and accessible user experiences and interactions. As the examples above illustrate, the efficacy of mobile commerce is far more than conjecture, and the impact runs far deeper than what is stored in the wallet. The mobile “wallet” transcends a specific form and becomes a background authentication layer — a discreet concierge for new methods of exchange.

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