Everything You Need to Know About Alternative Payment Methods
Being able to accept credit and debit cards is the lifeblood of any business. For brick-and-mortar locations, it’s worth knowing this: About half of all Americans carry just $20 in cash with them on a daily basis, and about 80% of Americans carry less than $50 daily. This means if you don’t accept credit cards, you could be missing out on sales.
If you sell online, you have to have a way to accept credit and debit cards, period. And it’s crucial that you have a professional system that shoppers will trust with their payment details. For most people that means a merchant account with an established payment gateway.
But are cards and cash — and all the traditional ways of doing business — the only options?
Of course not. There’s no shortage of companies devoted to changing the way we think about paying for things. New technology is bringing concepts like using phones to make payments into the mainstream. Having multiple ways for customers to pay is a good thing, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of convenience to you — or higher fees!
Let’s take a look at some alternative payment methods that you can integrate into your business now, what it’ll take to do so, how secure they are, and how popular they are.
Table of Contents
1. Apple Pay
Apple Pay was not the first company to offer contactless mobile payments, but it was the first to make them popular. Apple Pay uses NFC (learn more about this technology here) and the TouchID fingerprint reader to enable contactless in-store payments, as well as in-app purchases. With iOS 9, it also supports loyalty cards and rewards programs.
- iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and later models
- Apple Watch (with iPhone 5 and later models)
- iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4, iPad mini 3
Apple claims to support credit and debit cards from most major banks in the U.S. and the U.K. (A press release from Apple says that with support for Discover added this fall, the app supports 98% of credit card purchase volume.) That’s good news. The launch of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is also good, because it means consumers with older iPhones will likely start upgrading their older devices, expanding the potential user base.
Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t actually publish usage statistics. A survey done in June 2015 found that 13 percent of users with an Apple Pay-capable phone had used the feature; another 11 percent had plans to do so. We know that Apple sold 74.5 million iPhones in the first quarter of its 2015 fiscal year (the first quarter Apple Pay was available) — but not all of those were necessarily the 6 or 6 Plus. Still, it’s safe to say there are likely several million Apple Pay users across the country, even if some studies suggest that Apple Pay adoption rates are decreasing.
You’re still going to have to have a way to process credit cards to accept Apple Pay, so you’ll need a merchant account, a functioning POS, and an NFC-enabled terminal. The good news is Apple doesn’t charge any fees for Apple Pay transactions, so you only pay the standard credit and debit card processing fees.
Mobile payments like this have several measures for security. First, merchants never actually handle buyers’ credit card numbers. Instead, Apple Pay generates a single-use code (this is called tokenization). Even if a hacker gets the information, it’s useless because the number is good for one time only. Second, when consumers tap their phones to the terminal, they have to confirm the purchase with the TouchID fingerprint sensor.
Finally, the phone itself provides some security. The card numbers aren’t stored on the device — they’re kept in the cloud and the device can be locked remotely if it’s ever stolen. The CPU never handles the processing of the NFC transaction, either. A secure element or a separate chip bypass the rest of the system to communicate directly with the NFC-capable unit.
2. Samsung Pay
Samsung Pay is (you guessed it!) the Korean company’s response to Apply Pay. It is also an NFC-powered contactless payments app. It works on a handful of Samsung Galaxy devices:
- Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge+, and later models.
- Galaxy Note 5 and later models.
Samsung Pay just launched in September of 2015, which means it’s quite new. We’ll update you with usage numbers when we have something reliable and representative to report. But we do know that Samsung had sold an estimated 45 million Galaxy S6 phones (including the Edge and Edge+ variants), plus the Note 5 (for which sales numbers aren’t available right now). The potential user base is very large, but we’ll see how it pans out.
At this point it’s worth noting that the app requires consumers to be on one of five networks (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or U.S. Cellular) and have a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card issued by Bank of America, U.S. Bank, or Citi. The app also accepts merchant credit cards issued by Synchrony Financial. You still earn any rewards or points linked to those cards, but specific loyalty cards and coupons aren’t supported. There’s no in-app payments feature either, though Samsung hasn’t ruled it out.
Again, you need an established way to process credit cards and a compatible POS, and you won’t pay any additional fees for Samsung Pay transactions. But your existing credit card terminal might already accept this particular type of payment. That’s because Samsung Pay uses both NFC and something called magnetic secure transmission (MST). Basically, it allows the phone to emulate a traditional card with a magnetic stripe. That means you don’t need an NFC-capable terminal — but if you don’t have NFC, you can’t accept Apple Pay or Android Pay (next on this list), which limits your options.
Most EMV terminals are also equipped for NFC, so the machine you just got as a result of the liability shift most likely supports these contactless payments. But if your terminal isn’t EMV capable, that’s another issue entirely.
Samsung Pay relies on a fingerprint scanner as well. Users need to launch the app, swipe their fingerprint, and then pass their devices close to the terminal. That’s not quite as intuitive as Apple Pay from a user-friendliness standpoint, but apps evolve and change. At this point it’s just too early to say anything definitively.
3. Android Pay / Google Wallet
Android Pay, like Samsung Pay, is very new, launching in September 2015. At the same time, it’s much older than that: Android Pay is the successor to Google Wallet, Google’s contactless payment solution/mobile wallet, which launched in 2011.
Android Pay works on any Android smartphone (Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola, just to name a few) running the KitKat OS (Android 4.4) or higher. It’s NFC-powered, with support for debit and credit cards as well as loyalty/rewards programs. An in-app payments feature is set to launch later.
These days, Google Wallet has become a P2P payments app — an easy way to send money to friends and family for free.
The wallet supports Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover cards from a handful of banks, including Bank of America, U.S. Bank, Citi, PNC, Wells Fargo, and USAA (check out the full list here; more banks will be added as time goes on).
By now, you should have a good idea of what to expect as a merchant: You need a way to process credit cards, a compatible POS, and of course, an NFC-capable terminal. Payments are kept secure with tokenization. Users also need to enable the lock screens on their phones — which can then be unlocked using fingerprint readers, PINs, swipe patterns, and more.
The alternative mobile payments technique to NFC is the QR code. QR codes work a lot like traditional barcodes, but they can hold a lot more information — like payment data. The biggest difference is that instead of an NFC-enabled terminal, you need a barcode reader.
LevelUp is the leader in QR code-based mobile payments with its app, but it also builds custom white-label apps for businesses. In addition to the QR codes, LevelUp works with NFC and iBeacon. The LevelUp app works for both iOS and Android. In addition to phone-based payments, LevelUp also supports loyalty programs. You can even link any loyalty programs you have set up through Apple Pay into LevelUp (there’s also support for one-touch signups using TouchID).
Despite having been around for a while (it launched in 2011), LevelUp is admittedly a small player. It has some 14,000 partner businesses, including some major names. The app has over 100,000 downloads in Google Play, which isn’t much compared to a lot of other apps. But the company does have white-label solutions, so it’s difficult to accurately gauge numbers.
LevelUp is a little bit vague on pricing, but if you dig around, you’ll find that payments are processed for a flat 2% fee. That’s good, considering Square charges 2.75% and PayPal 2.7% per swipe. It’s not necessarily as low as you’ll get with merchant accounts, but rates vary a lot based on the type of business you run and what kind of cards you process. A flat 2% should be convenient for most people. LevelUp will also charge a 25% cut of any incentives you offer through its campaigns feature.
To accept payments, you need a compatible POS and LevelUp’s proprietary scanner ($50 each). If your POS isn’t compatible, you can get the LevelUp tablet for $100 according to the pricing page on the website.
As far as security goes, LevelUp offers PCI compliance and encryption, as well as tokenization. In fact, LevelUp uses a triple token system: the token your phone generates goes to a token on the LevelUp servers, which in turn routes to a token on the Braintree servers, which is the payments service LevelUp uses to store credit card data.
CurrentC is another QR code-based payments method. It’s developed by the Consumer Merchant Exchange, led by Walmart and some other heavy-hitters in the retail business. Unlike LevelUp, users can pay using either their bank accounts, store cards, or gift cards. For merchants, that means significantly lower fees. (It’s not well advertised, but you can also add merchant credit and debit cards.) CurrentC also links up with loyalty cards and lets you redeem coupons and discounts in the app.
CurrentC is still in test mode, but the website promises it’ll be ready to roll out across the country soon. One advantage for CurrentC is that it’s widely available for consumers — whereas Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are only available for the most recent smartphone models, and Android Pay requires a recent version of Android (which not all smartphones get), CurrentC should be available for download even on budget smartphones.
As far as security goes, CurrentC requires you to put in a PIN every time you open the app or switch between apps. You can also lock the device remotely if it ever goes missing. Like the other services we’ve discussed here, the app uses tokenization — it generates a random one-time use transaction ID and doesn’t pass personal data onto the merchants.
As far as requirements to accept CurrentC go, you’re really just going to need a POS and barcode scanner capable of reading QR codes. CurrentC also has a way to allow gas stations to accept payments at the pump by inputting a code. Restaurants can use the app too, with a feature that enables consumers to leave a tip.
I’m hoping when CurrentC gets a broader release that the MCX will be a bit more forthcoming about information. There’s no disclosure of processing fees, for example. The support website, which is hidden from the main site, has much more information about how the app works, which I find a bit frustrating because it took some digging to uncover it.
As a retailer, accepting PayPal has a huge advantage for you. It’s widely recognized by consumers, so they feel secure paying with it. In fact, PayPal has more than 170 million users worldwide, and it’s the payment method of choice on eBay. PayPal lets users link credit cards, debit cards, or bank accounts to make their payments. There’s also a free P2P payments tool, so consumers can send money to friends and family for free.
Merchants can use PayPal to accept payments on a website and through a smartphone or tablet when they’re on the go or in stores.
For retailers, PayPal doesn’t offer a full POS in its own right — it has a decent set of features, but if you need more capabilities, you can always turn to one of PayPal’s partner POS systems, which you can learn more about here. You can build a register out of a tablet, a cash drawer, and a receipt printer, if you want one. You’ll pay just 2.7% per swipe.
For online retail, PayPal integrates with a lot of shopping carts. For most online transactions, the company charges 2.9% + $0.30. That’s higher than you’ll pay with a solid deal from a merchant account provider in most circumstances, but it comes with a super easy setup. (Just beware that you’re at a higher risk of potential holds or freezes on your account given the nature of PayPal’s business — no contracts, available to everyone, pay as you go.
You can also build a “Pay with PayPal” feature into apps, with PayPal’s One Touch Feature included so that users don’t have to re-enter their usernames and passwords, which adds to the convenience of using PayPal.
However, if you want a hosted payment page, you’re going to have to shell out $30 a month for the PayPal Payments Pro plan. You’ll also get a virtual terminal for that cost. If you have the standard PayPal plan (which has no monthly fees), your customers will be directed to the PayPal page to complete the payment, then back to your site.
If you’re using PayPal Here, the company’s mobile solution, you should know that PayPal does offer an EMV reader that also supports NFC payments. It’s $150, but you can get $100 in rebates when you process $3,000 in 3 months. That’s not the best deal — Square is able to offer an EMV capable reader for $30, or an EMV/NFC-capable reader for $49, with a rebate available for select retailers. Even if you don’t qualify for Square’s rebates, Square’s EMV/NFC reader at full price is the same as PayPal’s reader when it’s discounted.
Like PayPal, Square lets merchants accept credit card payments on the go and in stores. You can also accept Square online, provided you use either the Square marketplace or build a site using one of Square’s 2 (yup, that’s right, 2) partners. Square’s rates are comparable to PayPal — just a flat 2.75%, no per-transaction fees.
7. Pay with Amazon
Like PayPal, Pay with Amazon (also known as the bulkier “Login and Pay with Amazon”) lets users pay on your site using their login credentials for another site — in this case, Amazon. They can use whatever payment methods they have stored on their Amazon accounts.
While PayPal is universally known, Pay with Amazon seems to be less common — but that doesn’t mean you should discount it. Amazon had 244 million active users in 2014. That’s roughly 70 million MORE users than PayPal. You won’t be limiting your audience if you choose Pay with Amazon over PayPal.
Pay with Amazon charges you 2.9% + $0.30 per online transaction. That’s identical to PayPal’s rates for online transactions. You can even do recurring billing for subscription packages. Plus, Pay with Amazon is entirely pay-as-you-go: no contract, no early termination fee, no monthly fees.
However, it’s worth mentioning that there’s no mobile support, so if you also sell in person, either at events or in a store, you’re going to have to look elsewhere for a solution. To accept Login and Pay with Amazon, you just need a compatible shopping cart. Fortunately, you have several great options: You can choose from Xcart, Magento, and Shopify, among others. Check out the full list here.
There are some other advantages here. First, Amazon offers a growth guarantee: If you sign up for the service, and you don’t see an increase in sales over the course of 30 days, the company will refund your processing fees up to $100,000. That’s a nice option if you’re really not sure about switching.
Plus, the Login and Pay with Amazon feature gives you a hosted payment page for free. More good news: You get the same fraud protection used by the Amazon.com site, so you’re not liable for any fraud-related chargebacks. (However, that’s not to say you’re protected against everything; you can still expect a $20 fee for any service-related chargebacks.)
One downside is the time it takes to get your money, which has been a pain point for a long time for sellers on the Amazon marketplace. First, there’s an initial 2-week holding period. After that, Amazon will settle your account daily — but it still takes 3-5 days to transfer funds from your account to your bank. With PayPal, your money is available pretty much immediately…and if you have the PayPal debit card, you can spend it anywhere at any time, not just online.
Out of all the alternative payments here, Bitcoin is most definitely the most “alternative” option. Unlike cash or credit, Bitcoins don’t have any physical form. No coins, no paper money. Bitcoin exists solely on the web. Unlike other currencies,which are centralized and controlled by governments, it is entirely self regulated. A network of computers handles the processing and records the transactions in a public register (more on that in a moment).
There’s a lot of info available about what Bitcoin is and how it works. You can start here to learn more. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know to accept Bitcoin.
First, not accepting Bitcoin certainly won’t cost you any business. The estimated userbase is 5-10 million people worldwide, with an estimated 110,000 daily Bitcoin transactions as of June 2015 (nearly double the approximate 60,600 daily transactions in June of 2014). However, if your target demographic is young and hip to the digital scene, that’s certainly a reason for you to consider accepting Bitcoin.
One nice advantage to accepting Bitcoin is that generally speaking, the fees are incredibly low, especially compared to PayPal or credit card processing rates. Some processors can even take Bitcoin and convert it into US dollars and deposit it in your bank account. However, the fees also vary, and the value of Bitcoin fluctuates. From October 2014 to October 2015, the value of 1 Bitcoin has hit as low as $177.28 USD and spiked as high as $427.24.
Security works much differently with Bitcoin, too. Every transaction is kept as part of a public ledger, but the users’ personal details are anonymous, which makes it harder to steal someone’s identity. No PCI compliance is required. There’s no opportunity for chargebacks, but at the same time merchants can’t alter charges, either. And you can encrypt and secure your Bitcoin wallet in other ways as well.
To accept Bitcoin, you just need to find a processor. Good news is, there are a lot of them. Even PayPal has a way to accept Bitcoin, through the PayPal Payments Hub. Braintree, a PayPal-owned company, also accepts Bitcoin via a partnership with Coinbase.
Cash, debit, and credit are the most popular kids on the block when it comes to payments. Checks lag far behind other options — an April 2014 report by the Fed found that just 3% of people prefer to pay primarily with check, compared to 43% of people who favor debit cards.
That’s not to say checks are totally irrelevant. Some people don’t have debit cards. Or sometimes your debit card gets cancelled and you’re stuck waiting for the new one to arrive, but you need to make a purchase. And you can (sort of) use checks to pay online, thanks to e-checks. Those type of transactions are also called ACH transactions because they’re routed through the Automated Clearing House, which is an electronic network of banks that also handles direct deposit and electronic bill payments. You don’t have an explicit check number with e-checks, but you still have to provide your routing and account numbers, much like the old-fashioned bit of paper.
The numbers on the popularity of ACH are a bit sketchy. In 2014, the ACH handled more than 23 billion electronic payments totaling more than $40 trillion. The problem with that number is that it includes all those direct deposits and bill payments — mortgages and utilities, especially. It’s not a completely accurate depiction of the eCommerce scene.
One of the big advantages to this payment method is how much more affordable it is compared to standard credit card processing rates. ACH fees, depending on who processes them, might be a percentage of 0.5% or 1%, or a flat fee, which is typically in the range of $0.25 to $0.75. That’s not bad at all, especially if you get the flat fee. Assuming a 1.85% rate on credit card processing fees for a $250 transaction, that’s $4.63 in fees compared to a maximum of $2.50 with a 1% rate for ACH.
There are a lot of ways to accept ACH. For one, both Amazon and PayPal allow customers to link and pay with their bank accounts, though you, as the merchant, will end up paying the standard 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction (for a $250 transaction, that means $7.55).
If you have a virtual terminal, you should be able to enable this feature, but fees will vary based on your provider. Some of the services that we’ve reviewed that support ACH/e-checks include:
Another merchant account provider that supports e-checks is PayStand. We haven’t reviewed PayStand in depth (partly because it just launched publicly in 2014), but right off the bat we’re impressed by the level of transparency on the site and the depth of information available. We’re less impressed by the claim that its credit card rates — 2.49% + $0.30 — are wholesale, especially given the additional $99 monthly fee for the basic plan. However, PayStand also gives you very low-cost ACH transactions and free Bitcoin processing, as well as mobile processing. The service is promising and some merchants are sure to find value in Paystand’s offerings.
You also don’t need to sell exclusively online to accept ACH. If you have a retail setup, you can get a scanner to convert checks into e-checks. That means transactions will be a bit easier — there’s no forwarding checks to banks and waiting to find out if they clear.
ACH is definitely a great backup option to have, but probably not the best choice for a sole payment option. There are a couple of reasons not everyone will want to use ACH payments:
- One, ACH takes a bit longer to process than debit or credit. So it takes longer for you to get your money and consumers have to wait longer for the transaction to process.
- Two, it’s not the most secure for consumers, because they have to provide both their account numbers and routing numbers. While the rate of fraudulent transactions is low — just 3 of every 10,000 ACH transactions are rejected for being unauthorized — online payments are the least secure form of ACH transfers (compared with direct deposits, P2P transfers, and online bill pay).
And frankly it’s easier for a lot of people to plug in a card number and a 3-digit security code than it is to root around for your checkbook to get the account and routing numbers.
Dwolla is technically a third-party ACH service, but it’s a standout in the field for a few reasons. One, Dwolla’s basic features are entirely free to use. That means ACH payments, recurring payments, and the ability to distribute large numbers of payments (e.g., employee paychecks). And there’s an option of sending money to family or friends, as well, so there’s definitely a consumer base.
Two, with the tiered service plans (starting at $25/month and going up to $1500/month) you get a range of extra features that make Dwolla even more attractive. That includes next-day transfers (a big plus) and the option for white-label payments. That means, basically, you’ll get a hosted payment page. Customers don’t leave your site and don’t get any indication that they’re using Dwolla.
Paying $1,500 per month for the service sounds outrageous, until you consider that you’re not paying any transaction fees. If you’re doing substantial business with ACH payments, you could easily wind up saving money in the long run. And having a hosted payment page is nothing to sneeze at — or the next-day transfers, the higher limits, payment profiles, etc. (There’s also a $250/month option that gives you more than the basic package but not quite as many perks. That’s good if your business isn’t quite enterprise-scale.)
Now, if you don’t want to shell out $250 or $1,500 monthly for all the fancy tools, or don’t care about a hosted payment page, the basic $25/month plan still gives you next-day transfers. If you want to keep your fees even lower, you can forgo the next-day payments all together.
Customers have the option to create a full-fledged Dwolla account or use the simpler Dwolla Direct. The Direct account is a lot less involved compared to Dwolla’s original setup. Customers can get themselves set up in under a minute and they can link their online banking credentials to pay instead of linking their accounts directly.
As far as security goes, Dwolla uses tokenization and TLS 128-bit encryption. There’s also two-factor authentication — and you’ll have to enter your PIN whenever you move money or make a change to an account.
Adding Dwolla to your options for online payments is easy with the custom API, and creating an account is free, so you can give it a try and get a feel for it before you even set up Dwolla for your business.
Alternative Payment Methods: So Where to Now?
If you are looking for alternatives to credit cards and traditional merchant accounts, there’s no better time to get started. Technology is changing the way we think about payments and how we handle money in general: everything from mobile wallets that replace credit cards to decentralized digital currency. There are alternative payment methods to appeal to every market segment, and options to appeal to every sort of business. It’s just a matter of finding what works for you and your customers.
Have questions about your options for payment processing? Leave a comment and let us know. We’re always happy to hear from you! We can also help you lower your processing fees or even choose a processor.