American Express launches digital payments platform

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American Express has ceaselessly driven into our heads, “Don’t leave home without it” as the commercial message for its American Express card. Now it’s launching its Serve digital payments platform, so it can tell us, “Don’t go online without it.”

The move to give consumers new ways to spend, send and receive money online will help American Express go to war with PayPal and Visa, which bought PlaySpan for $190 million in February. And it suggests that the battle to control digital payments online is going to be a big one, since billions upon billions of dollars in transaction fees are at stake. The overall goal is to provide a digital alternative to cash.

“This provides us with an opportunity to deepen our relationships with consumers to fit their increasingly digital lifestyles,” said Dan Schulman, group president of enterprise growth at American Express, in a conference call on Monday morning.

The announcement shows that American Express wants to go after a new demographic of consumers, including those who are young and tech savvy but perhaps not fans of credit cards or other traditional payments. It will also help American Express penetrate emerging markets overseas where cash rules. Until now, American Express wasn’t reaching a lot of consumers who don’t use traditional credit cards.

Just last week, mobile payments firm Boku hooked up with O2 in Germany to offer mobile payments for physical goods as well as digital goods. With Serve, consumers can make purchases and person-to-person payments a variety of ways: online, via mobile phones or via the millions of merchants who accept American Express Cards.

American Express says that Serve unifies multiple payment options into a single account that can be funded from a bank account, debit, credit or charge card, or by receiving money from another Serve account. Serve’s aim is to get rid of cash, check, or debit cards by being more convenient. Serve accounts can be accessed from apps on Apple iOS and Android devices. Users can also access accounts on Serve.com and on Facebook. Schulman said Serve is an open platform, allowing users to fund the accounts from any source available. It’s not tied to a particular device, bank, credit card or debit card.

Over time, the company will add new features and functions to Serve. American Express will also promote Serve with a wide range of partners and deliver customized offers to consumers.

For the first six months, American Express will waive fees for consumers. You can set up an online account with Serve, funding it from bank accounts, debit cards, credit or charge cards, or other Serve accounts. You can then use that account to send and receive money to friends, pay bills and make purchases online. The account comes with a reloadable Serve prepaid card that you can use at any merchant or automated teller machine that accepts American Express cards.

PayPal, the major rival to American Express in this market, said in a statement, “The increased interest in digital payments validates consumer demand for safe, easy and flexible payment services.  The online and offline worlds are blurring, and as a result, everybody wants a piece of the digital payments market. In PayPal’s 12-year history, we’ve always faced competition from some of the largest companies in the world. PayPal was built from the ground up to focus solely on digital payments, and we believe that gives us tremendous advantages including our industry-leading anti-fraud capabilities, our global footprint and connections to local banking infrastructures around the world, and our open payment platform that enables innovation into whole new consumer payment applications. We’ll continue to stay focused on defining the future of how people shop and pay – and giving our customers a better way to send and receive money.”

In contrast to debit cards, Serve lets you create sub-accounts, for spouses or children. That allows parents to set allowances for children or others in the family. Parents can specify what the money can be spent for, such as allowing cash withdrawals or limiting spending to merchant transactions only. Parents can also receive reports back on how their children spent the money. The same accounts could be used for small businesses, such as authorizing sub accounts for delivery drivers who incur expenses on the go.

American Express got the foundation for Serve from its acquisition of Revolution Money in early 2010.

Serve is starting in the U.S. now and will roll out overseas in the coming year. It is doing a marketing pilot with merchants in Eugene, Ore. Schulman said the company will test a bunch of marketing messages in that market and otherwise experiment.

“This is a beta world we live in,” Schulman said. “We will listen and learn.”

The first partners for the platform are Ticketmaster, expense reporting firm Concur and Flipswap. American Express plans to go after partners in commerce, gaming, entertainment and social networking, Schulman said. Ticketmaster will use Serve as an option for customers to buy and sell tickets with other customers. Concur will use it as an expense management and reimbursement method for transactions processed by Concur’s small business expense reporting service, Concur Breeze. Flipswap will use Serve to issue refunds more quickly to consumers who sell or trade in their old mobile phones for reuse or recycling.

Serve is also working with five charities: Autism Speaks, Best Friends Animal Society, Malaria No More, Save The Children and Stand Up For Kids. Users can make donations to those charities via a donations widget that can be downloaded from Serve.com or its Facebook site. That widget can be shared on other web sites to solicit donations. American Express will match contributions via the widget, up to $100,000 for each charity.

After the six-month free period ends, American Express will charge 30 cents per spending transaction and a 2.9 percent fee for each transaction where a user transfers money into a Serve account. The first ATM transaction in a given month is free, but subsequent transactions cost $2 each.

Schulman said that the system will be able to evolve to work with near-field communication, an emerging technology where you can pay for something with a mobile phone by waving it over a wireless reader. American Express will judge success by the number of customers, partners, customer satisfaction, the number of developers coming on board, and the mix of funding sources, Schulman said. He said the company will be very focused on making Serve as secure as possible.

The company has made an upfront investment in the technology and will have incremental expenses as it signs up more customers.


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