Zong Sees Mobile Payments Coming for Physical Goods Sooner Than You Think

Mobile payments are fast becoming a reality as wireless carriers in the U.S. lower the fees they collect from merchants in return for the right to charge items to the mobile bill.

While paying by mobile phone has been around for years–with consumers charging ringtones and other mobile content to their bill–it’s been only in the past few months that it has become viable for other expenses.

In fact, over the past couple of weeks, a substantial milestone was reached and went almost completely unnoticed, said David Marcus, the CEO of Zong, a mobile payments provider.

He said Facebook stopped adding a surcharge when customers buy Facebook Credits via the mobile phone. And it’s not just Facebook–other companies have been following suit when it comes to digital and virtual goods.

What’s more, there’s an even bigger change coming very shortly.

Carriers will lower the amount it charges even more for physical goods.

It won’t be enough for everyday items that have extremely low margins, like groceries or gas, but it will open up mobile payments to e-commerce. Most notably, Marcus said, consumers of high-margin items, like group-buying vouchers from Groupon and LivingSocial, will be able to participate.

The process makes sense. Users should be able to be notified about offers via the phone, purchase the deals on the phone and then walk into a restaurant or bar to redeem them using their mobile phone–instead of logging on to a Web site from a computer and printing out paper vouchers.

“Our sales force is actively working on it right now, and by the end of the second quarter, we’ll be processing physical payments,” he said.

Zong is not the only one in this red-hot space.

In fact, it’s chock-full of competitors, including PayPal, Boku, mopay and BilltoMobile. They all want to make paying for virtual and digital goods on the phone as seamless as possible.

Additionally, another class of company is going about it in a whole other way: Using your phone to charge payments to your credit card at the grocery store, gas station or other location. Usually this entails waving the phone in front of a point-of-sales device using RFID or near-field communications.

The mobile-payment providers are not in that space, but several incumbents are, including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and even the carriers, through a joint venture called ISIS. Another company, Square, is coming up with a way to replace the point of sales machine with a cellphone.

But Marcus said the really exciting stuff is right around the corner.

And, right now, most of the momentum is from the carriers dropping the revenue splits to closer to 10 percent, from 40 percent more than a year ago. “The carriers won’t go below 10 percent for digital or virtual goods, but they will lower their rates for physical,” he said.

Removing these sky-high surcharges has sent payment volumes skyrocketing.

In fact, after Facebook and others were able to lower the rates, Zong got a nice lift.

Marcus said across their its network, its daily payments volume jumped by more than 50 percent in the first week of January, compared with the same week last December.

Marcus keeps track of the company’s payments volume from a flat screen on the wall of the company’s Menlo Park, Calif., offices. When countries turn red, it’s a good sign.

He expects more good signs in the future as it prepares for another bump from physical goods coming in the next few weeks.


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— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus