How Bitcoin Is Fueling a New Payments Battlefield
The traditional payments industry is headed for an upheaval as more small businesses begin accepting Bitcoin and more payment startups rise to meet the growing demand.
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More and more small businesses throughout the world are finally waking up to the benefits of accepting Bitcoin payments. Zero chargebacks, low (and sometimes no) transaction fees and no transaction reversals are big boons, but they're only the beginning.
On a broader scale, accepting Bitcoin eliminates the hassle and expense of cross-border transaction fees, opening merchants up to new markets across the world. Latching onto the Bitcoin payment trend can also thrust early adopters into the media spotlight and help them stand out from the competition.
"Bitcoin can reduce [merchants'] credit card processing fees to less than one percent," said Nicholas Tomaino, business development manager at Coinbase, a San Francisco-based global Bitcoin wallet and merchant service. "This is especially appealing for small businesses that sacrifice anywhere between three to five percent of their revenues to these fees."
Some 50,000-plus merchants around the world already accept Bitcoin, Tomaino said. The "vast majority" of them, he said, are online businesses, not brick-and-mortar operations, making the in-store corner of the market "ripest for bitcoin to disrupt."
The barrier to entry for most online and brick-and-mortar merchants: they don't know how to accept Bitcoin and they lack the technology to accept it.
Enter the growing wave of point-of-sale payment processors racing to the rescue, seizing on the opportunity to equip businesses with the tools to make accepting Bitcoin a seamless process.
A game with many players
"People have bitcoins and want to spend them and our job is to make it easy for merchants to accept them," said Tony Gallippi, co-founder and CEO of BitPay, a leading Bitcoin payment processing service provider that launched in May 2011.
The Atlanta-based startup helps more than 30,000 merchants process $1 million in Bitcoin transactions daily across the world. Some of the more recognizable businesses in the BitPay bunch include Virgin Galactic, WordPress, Shopify, Gyft and TigerDirect. BitPay's Mobile Checkout app allows retailers to receive Bitcoin payments on their smartphones or tablets.
BitPay offers monthly pricing plans and charges no per transaction fees. Plans range from $30 to $300 per 30 days, depending on the scope of your support needs and the total amount of purchases processed per day.
Revel Systems, which also launched in May 2011, is a major player in the iPad point-of-sale checkout systems space. After noticing that some of its clients were already accepting Bitcoin, the San Francisco startup recently partnered with Coinbase to add Bitcoin integration to its hardware-software iPad checkout payment systems. Revel serves small and mid-sized brick-and-mortar retail and food industry businesses, including Goodwill, Belkin, Dairy Queen, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
Lisa Falzone, Revel's co-founder and CEO, said merchants have no choice but to broaden the range of alternative currencies they accept to meet the rising demand, not just for Bitcoin.
"We see a lot of potential in cryptocurrency, mobile payments and other capital that have yet to be invented," she said. "I think Bitcoin is just one of the many electronic currencies that will emerge in the future. Developing POS platforms that are payment processor and digital currency agnostic will allow for the development and usage of future cryptocurrencies as they evolve and develop."
When a customer pays with Bitcoin on Revel's cloud-based POS system (perhaps for a bucket of fried chicken from Popeyes), the employee at the checkout stand simply selects the Bitcoin payment option from the iPad screen. Next, the customer scans a QR code that appears on the iPad payment screen using his or her smartphone Bitcoin wallet app and, in about the span of a minute (significantly longer than processing a standard debit or credit card payment), the transfer of bitcoins is complete. An email confirmation is then sent to both parties.
The cost of a Revel POS system, which comes with an iPad, router and printer, is $3,300, plus $50 per month for the companion software.
Toronto-based Coinkite manufactures similar, less bulky, less expensive all-in-one handheld Bitcoin hardware POS mobile checkout terminals for merchants. Its two terminal products accept Bitcoin and Litecoin payments, with additional cryptocurrency support coming soon. Coinkite terminals range between $490 (no QR code scanner feature) and $803 (QR scanner feature included).
Paying for goods and services in Bitcoin is widely considered more secure than paying with a credit card, and it's more private, at least for now. Paying with credit cards can expose buyers' credentials to cyberthieves (as evidenced by the recent massive Michael's and Target security breaches), whereas paying with bitcoins involves providing a merchant with your bitcoin address (or public key), "which can't be used by fraudsters," Tomaino of Coinbase said. Remember, though, that fraudsters exploited vulnerabilities in Mt. Gox's private key cold storage system to make off with millions of Bitcoins.
The biggest challenge in the Bitcoin POS market right now, Tomaino said, is that Bitcoin POS applications can only run on Android and Windows mobile devices at the moment. According to the latest Nielsen stats, about half (42 percent) of Americans who own smartphones have Apple handsets. The other half use Android devices (52 percent), with slivers of the market still going to lingering BlackBerry (3 percent) and Windows (2 percent) phone users.
Apple continues to shun to apps that transmit Bitcoin transactions. So far Apple has booted Blockchain, Coinbase and all other similar Bitcoin wallets from its marketplace. Nicolas Cary, CEO of Blockchain, speculated that perhaps Apple is allergic to Bitcoin apps because it's likely angling for its own piece of the lucrative mobile payments pie. If the rumors are true, Cary might be right.
Interestingly, Revel's iPad POS app is still live in the App Store, even with the company's recent Bitcoin integration care of Coinbase.
A bright future
Gallippi sees a future where the ability to pay for goods and services in Bitcoin is the norm, and it's not too far off.
"In five years we expect Bitcoin to be widely accepted globally so that no matter where a person goes, bitcoin will be accepted alongside cash and credit cards," he said.
Tomaino, however, expects Bitcoin payments to mainstream much sooner.
Related: What the Heck is Bitcoin Anyway?
"In the next year we'll see some major national retailers accepting Bitcoin at multiple locations," he said, "and we'll see several professional sports stadiums accept bitcoin for tickets, concessions and merchandise." The Sacramento Kings already do all of that.
Yelp, a popular customer review site, recently announced that it's letting users know which of its millions of listed business now accept Bitcoin as payment.
With hundreds of alt currencies already circulating and new ones coming online all the time, consumers will continue to demand the ability to pay in the cryptocurrency of their choice, online and in-store. Is your business ready for the crypto-payments revolution?