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At Money 20/20 Europe this week, Tim Green chaired a MEF panel on a future of personalised shopping experiences. Then, he went to another talk and realised someone had already built it…

When I first began writing about mobile 10 years ago, the only thing the phone threatened to cannibalise was the landline. Oh, and the address book – but just for phone numbers.

And given the limited memory of the average Nokia brick, you had to be pretty friendless to throw out your paper and pen.

But eventually the ‘personal organiser’ did disappear. And one by one the mobile eradicated other things from our lives too. The MP3 player, camera, camcorder, map and SatNav. It’s even been claimed that the mobile has chipped away at the cigarette by giving our hands something to fiddle with, and teenagers something (phone credit) they’d rather spend their money on. Now, of course, the mobile is coming for financial services. The wallet. Perhaps even the whole bank.

Which is why I – someone who started writing about ringtones in 2005 – somehow ended up moderating a panel at Money 2020 this week.

Money 2020 is the banking industry’s future-gazing conference. Across dozens of talks, the event addressed everything from P2P lending to machine learning to APIs to biometrics.

 The mobile is coming for financial services, the wallet and perhaps even the whole bank. Which is why I – someone who started writing about ringtones in 2005 – somehow ended up moderating a panel at Money 2020.

And at the heart of it all – indisputably – was mobile.

My panel session was organised by MEF. Sadly, MEF didn’t have a say in the title, which was the rather baffling “The art of creating personalised experiences at scale”.

Er, ’personalised experience at scale’? I couldn’t resist a quip that this is surely an oxymoron – like amicable divorce or adult male (no shortage of them at Money 2020, as you can imagine).

Also, why ‘art’? I don’t think building retail environments capable of delivering personalised experiences will be done by staring into space and waiting for the muse to arrive.

So it took me a while to figure out a structure for the session.

We’d start from the basis that mobile payment will get nowhere it’s just that: payment. But given that the phone has a screen, a camera and a permanent data connection it should be able to do loads more than a plastic card.

Real time offers. A proper receipt trail. Collated loyalty cards. Extensive product information. The panel would hypothesis about this future and then unpack what was needed to get there. Also, whose product would provide the consumer-facing layer. In my preliminary discussions with the panel, we all agreed this stuff was a long way off.

Image credit: @imaginecurve

But then, literally one hour before the panel commenced, I realised we were all wrong.

Alipay had already done it.

On the main stage, I watched Sabrina Peng, president of Alipay International, reveal that Alipay would be launching in Europe. Not for European shoppers, but instead to give Chinese tourists the chance to use Alipay to buy things abroad.

Thus the app will geo-locate and send its user relevant notifications about where to eat, shopping offers and places to see. And naturally, when they want to pay, the app will generate a barcode, which the merchant can scan.

You could call this something like ‘personalised experiences at scale’. It’s certainly closer to it than getting to the contactless reader and deciding whether to pay with a plastic card or a phone app.

Of course, some European companies are inching towards the kind of service Alipay (and Tencent/WeChat of course) have built. Seamless/SeQR is one example. But they are nowhere near the Chinese.

As I said, there’s no indication that Alipay will launch for consumers outside of China. That would be a major undertaking, and anyway there’s a huge upside in targeting Chinese spending outside of China. Chinese tourists reportedly spent $215 billion abroad last year. Alipay could capture a big chunk of that just by extending its platform to overseas merchants.

Actually, the announcement didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Last year, Alipay struck a deal with MEF member Wirecard to let merchants accept Alipay transactions via Wirecard’s POS system. As Peng rather pithily put it on stage at Money 2020, merchants are not so interested in more ways to pay. But they certainly sit up when you offer then a way to get more business.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Of course, it should be said that Alipay had some ‘advantages’ when building its platform. It had a vast consumer base that was smartphone-first, a developing economy and retailers open to new ways of selling to an army of new customers.

In ‘old’ Europe and US, the status quo is harder to dismantle.

But change is coming. Question is, who going to make it happen? Banks? Apple? Google? Facebook? Merchants themselves?

Yeah, it was simpler writing about ringtones.