Darwin, cockroaches,
and payments

evolution-2780651_1280Everyone knows that Charles Darwin introduced the phrase survival of the fittest.

Well, almost everyone. It would take Darwin by surprise, however, since in fact he didn’t say it. He didn’t even imply it.

Which is just as well. Survival of the fittest doesn’t quite work. Fittest is a superlative, meaning there can be only one. If only the fittest survived, the world would have only one species of cockroach, not 4500, only one brand of airline, not 5,000, and only one football team, the Denver Broncos.

Survival of the fit-enough is more like it. You can have only one fittest, but you can have untold numbers of fit-enoughs.

I need hardly point out that we are seeing a proliferation of fit-enough payment options. Any list I could produce—Zelle, Google Wallet, Apple Pay, Venmo, Paypal, GoPayment, Square, and others—would not just fail to scratch the surface, but fail even to gently caress it.

I neither presume to know nor venture to guess which is the fittest of them all. But since they’re all still here, it’s safe to assume that they are all fit-enough to continue hanging on and duking it out. At least for a while.

Meanwhile, retailers keep complicating things.

Take Walmart. When the retail giant introduced Walmart Pay in 2015, it made the strategic decision not to play ball with Apple Pay. According to Torrey Kim in a recent article for The Balance, Walmart Pay …

… allowed customers to download the app to their phones and use their own phones as scanning devices.

Trouble was, Kim added,

The program was a terrible failure, with customers complaining about the app and its issues.

But Walmart stuck with it, which, when you’re as fit-enough as Walmart, you can do. Today, the gambit may be paying off. Walmart Pay is now within striking distance of surpassing Apple Pay in U.S. mobile payments.

Not bad for an app that can be used only in one store. Of course, it helps to have 5,412 U.S. locations of that one store.

Walmart recently announced that it is upping its game. A new version of its Scan & Go app is headed for testing in 100 stores. For consumers wary of downloading yet anther app, Walmart tells us that some of its stores …

… have been outfitted with Scan & Go kiosks where customers can pick up easy-to-use handheld devices. This allows them to try out the service before downloading it to their phones.

One reason retailers like having their own payment systems is to track customer purchases, which broader-base payments apps don’t permit them to do. Proprietary apps also relieve customers from having to stuff their wallets with loyalty cards and go through the hassle of presenting them at checkout. What remains to be seen whether consumers will go for trading a walletful of cards for a phoneful of apps.

“Phoneful of apps” is no exaggeration. From McDonald’s to Cinemark to Starbucks to CVS to Bestbuy to … well, and so on … there is no end to the number of retail apps you can stuff into your mobile device.

When will the proliferation end? Beats me, but it is sure sooner or later to at least slow. How soon remains to be seen. Right now, according to Retail Drive’s Chantal Tode, consumers seem to prefer retail payment options to Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

Like all species, payment options are subject to environmental pressures. These will inevitably lead to modified species, hybrid species, new species, and, yes, some extinctions. But since fit-enough is all that’s required to survive, there’s no reason to suppose the environment will ever prune the market entirely of all but one. On the contrary, there is ample reason to suppose that a wide variety, though perhaps not quite as wide, of payment options will persist. On a planet with billions of people holding billions of bank accounts, there are necessarily innumerable niches to fill. Odds are a one-size-fits-all will never be possible.

As for what Darwin never said, he’s not alone. Neither did Winston Churchill ever say, “Madam, if you were my wife I’d drink it.” But I digress. 

Leave a Comment