In this cell-phone-centric age, your friends might learn that you’ve gone to see a movie when you arrive at the theater and check in on Facebook or Foursquare. But that’s probably too late to function as anything more than a boast. An iPhone app called Blaze Mobile Wallet tells them the instant you book a ticket in advance, giving them time to respond and meet you there.
When users pay for a reservation using the app, which debits funds from a prepaid account, a Facebook post lets friends know all the details: film, theater, and show time. “It makes it more likely that friends will join them at the movie,” says Michelle Fisher, CEO of Blaze Mobile, one of a slew of companies exploring how cell phones that act as wallets can encourage new connections between friends—and between businesses and their customers.
What makes it all possible is “contactless” payments, a technology that transfers funds when users wave a phone at card readers installed by retailers. In the case of Blaze Mobile Wallet, for example, RFID stickers featuring MasterCard’s PayPass protocol bring that capability to any smart phone that runs the app.
Home Depot, 7-Eleven, and many other large retailers have embraced contactless payment in recent years. Businesses are keen to make lines move faster and cut cash transactions, says James Anderson, global vice president of mobile for MasterCard. The company now has 83 million contactless cards and tags in circulation worldwide, and about 265,000 businesses are taking contactless payments. But those transactions are currently conducted with contactless versions of a regular credit card, or fobs that hang from the customer’s key chains.
Making it possible to pay through mobile phones will probably cause shoppers to behave differently, says Anderson. “People typically have their phone much closer to hand, so I think they are more ready to pay,” he explains. “For example, many women put their cards at the bottom of their purse for security, but keep their phone at the very top for easy access.”
The result is new opportunity for retailers, says Dave Wentker, head of mobile products at Visa International. “For retailers, mobile is a critical channel to reach their customers,” he says. “Paying with a phone is not just about payments; it’s about advertising, couponing, and loyalty.”
Bling Nation, a startup based in Palo Alto, California, is already demonstrating how businesses can use customers’ social ties. Like Blaze, the firm distributes stickers that make phones usable for contactless payment. It also taps features provided by Facebook to link each user’s account with his or her Facebook identity.