Practical Ecommerce

Alternative Payment Methods Part 1: What Are They, How Do They Work

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on alternative online payment methods. The author is Michael E. Shatz, a consultant and an expert on online payments. Part 1, below, defines alternative payment methods and explains the two major types. Part 2 will evaluate the claims made by each method, to help merchants identify which, if any, of the methods could help them.

Merchants frequently ask me about alternative online payment methods, those outside of the credit card world. Three of the most popular alternative payment methods (APMs) are Bill Me Later®, PayPal™ and Google™ Checkout. Bill Me Later was acquired by eBay Inc. (the owner of PayPal) in November 2008. All three of these APMs have pros and cons of their own, as well as with respect to each other. All three of these APMs typically live up to most of their claims, but very importantly, not for every type of merchant.

Case studies have become a very popular marketing tool for these payment methods, as results – although generally positive – vary significantly between different types of merchants. Although most APMs make blanket claims, they are also very careful to supplement these assertions with some relatively hard facts based on real merchant experiences. It would therefore be safe to say that if your company’s profile and business model were similar to one of these case studies, then you should seriously consider testing the particular APM.

Two Types of Alternative Payment Methods

Before looking at specific claims, we should understand how these APMs work. There are two basic types of APMs, “credit-based” and “value added.” It is worthwhile to understand how they operate in comparison to the credit card networks.

  1. Credit-based. Credit-based APMs operate proprietary platforms that complete sales transactions by offering credit terms to the consumer. They operate exclusively outside the domain of the credit card networks. Examples of this type of APM are Bill Me Later, PayPal Pay Later, and eLayaway®. Under this model, the APM grants credit and later invoices the consumer for any purchases. The APM then pays the merchant via ACH (Automated Clearing House), less any applicable fess. Generally speaking, consumers are granted credit during a brief application process the first time they checkout with that APM. Consumers may also apply for an account by going to the APM’s website.

    The term “apply” is important here because the consumer must be granted credit. The application asks for summary personal information such that the APM can quickly run the customer against a credit bureau or other risk assessment tools. According to most claims, the underwriting decision takes less than thirty seconds. Merchants must consider that some of their customers will be denied credit, which can result in abandonment. Also, credit inquiries at any of the major bureaus may affect a consumer’s credit score.

    Once the customer has been approved, he or she can use an express checkout process at participating merchants, which only requires an account number and a PIN. If the account number is stored locally on the consumer’s computer, then only PIN entry is required, making the checkout process much faster than the ordinary credit card checkout process. It should be noted, however, that many merchants have developed their own express checkout processes for returning credit card customers.

    Like most credit-based programs (e.g., private label store cards), these APMs are effective when the consumer may not have the money, or may wish to defer from paying at the time of purchase. This allows merchants, for instance, to offer their customers 90-day payment terms. Solutions like eLayaway will allow customers to pay over time for their purchase – up to 13 months. If promoted correctly, these types of promotions offer merchants significant uplift.

  2. Value Added Proprietary Gateways. Value added proprietary gateways operate platforms that act as the intermediaries between the consumer and the merchant while utilizing standard credit card and ACH networks. Payments for goods and services are taken by the APM directly from the consumer’s credit card or checking account. Many observers consider these schemes gateways because the sales transactions generally pass through the APM to a conventional payment processor or the Federal Reserve. PayPal Website Payments Standard and Google Checkout are perhaps the best examples of this model. Under these schemes, consumers create an account on the APM’s website or when they first select the APM on a participating merchant’s checkout form. When the consumer makes a purchase, the amount is deducted from their checking or credit card account by the APM. In the case of PayPal, most deductions are made from checking accounts. Google Checkout charges the consumers’ credit cards.

    In this category, merchants must also create an account not unlike a standard merchant account. As has already been stated, however, all transactions pass to the APM’s payment processor (or the Fed in the case of checking account-based consumers), not the merchant’s. Disputes and other situations requiring mediation are handled by the APM. In most cases, the APM restricts the merchant from seeing some or all of the payment data, providing the consumer with varying levels of anonymity, privacy, and enhanced security. These security features makes this type of APM attractive to consumers with general privacy concerns, or who are otherwise concerned about using their credit card with an unknown merchant. Gateway APMs also offer express checkout features, making the checkout procedure quicker and easier for the consumer.

Each APM Has Advantages

Each of these APM types has its own primary advantage. PayPal, for instance, enjoys a large consumer base of 150 million users, although the number of active users is certainly less and varies over time. Google, of course, enjoys its dominance in the paid search space, offering an integrated AdWord payment conversion strategy to Google Checkout customers, as well as AdWord fee incentives.

Michael E. Shatz

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Comment ( 1 )

  1. Jesse Stickle June 4, 2009 Reply

    I would like to clarify one point regarding eLayaway. eLayaway is not a credit based payment option. In fact, it operates like traditional layaway. Consumers make payments over time and when it’s paid in full they receive their product.

    Please let me know if you would like additional information about eLayaway or if there are any questions I could answer.