The Magic of Digital Payments

Kris Bentz

Street magician Kris Bentz dazzles—and accepts digital donations.

On my recent trip to Las Vegas, a street magician snagged my attention. (I mentioned this last week.) His show hadn’t yet started and a crowd had not yet begun to gather, so I might have moved on had he not called me over to examine one of his props. But by the time I’d finished, I found myself at the front and center of a semicircle of newly gathered spectators. So I stayed.

I wasn’t entirely thrilled to be there. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy magic shows, and this one was first-rate. And I enjoy street performers. It’s just that I don’t carry cash—I’m in the digital payments business, after all—and I wasn’t looking forward to having a crowd watch me heartlessly pass along The Hat after depositing zilch.

So you can imagine my relief when, as The Hat set out on its journey, the street magician said, “For those who don’t carry cash, I accept electronic tips.” With a flourish, he whipped out a sign showing a variety of digital payment logos. 

Relieved, I gave him a generous tip, partly to thank him for a great show and partly to thank him for sparing me the embarrassment of looking like a tightwad. The performer’s name is Kris Bentz—that’s him pictured above—and his show was, as I said, first-rate. And it required no small degree of skill, because performing on the street precludes fancy equipment, trap doors, smoke, and mirrors. (You can check out his act—maybe for your next corporate event?—by clicking here. I am using his name and image with his permission.)

I am by no means the only person who travels cashless. CNBC reported earlier this year on a study by U.S. Bank that found … 

… 50 percent of respondents said they carry cash with them less than half of the time they are out. When they do carry the green, 76 percent said they keep less than $50 on hand and nearly half have less than $20. 

I began wondering, what hath the digital payments industry wrought upon the humble street performer? And realized that what it hath wrought, as so often happens in our digital age, is …

Creative solutions

I donated to Bentz’s virtual hat by means of Apple Pay. It proved a bit clunky, for I had to set up Bentz as a contact before I could dispatch the funds. 

A better solution might be Busk.co, a brand name that makes sense if you happen to know that busking refers to street performing. Buskers sign on to the app, which lets spectators donate in seconds via Apple Pay and Google pay and in a minute or so using PayPal or a plastic. It, too, is a little klunky, because spectators must also sign up for the app, which may be a bit much to ask of people with no plans of becoming serial busker supporters.

Products the likes of Square may be less than ideal. Part of the busker’s success depends on continued interaction with spectators, to which pausing to connect a reader to a portable device and run a card is hardly conducive.

A good possibility for buskers may be found in iZettle, a Swedish company that PayPal purchased last year for a mere $2.2 billion. iZettle furnishes a tap-to-pay device, so spectators can pony up without downloading an app or adding the performer to a contacts list. According to TechCrunch.com:

One busker, Charlotte Campbell, who took part in the test phase said the addition of contactless payments “had a significant impact on contributions” she received. “More people than ever tap-to-donate whilst I sing, and often, when one person does, another follows,” Campbell added. The deal is perhaps the most visible piece of business from iZettle, which has quietly made a mark in helping UK payments go digital.

Venmo, another PayPal holding, is also gaining popularity among street performers. MarketWatch reported:

On a recent crisp afternoon in New York, saxophonist Chris Johansen wraps up a set in Madison Square Park. If this were a few years ago, he’d scoop up the cash tips in his collection bag and move on. But now, he also adds up the tips he has collected through an app on his smartphone. As Johansen plays, he displays a sign with his Venmo account … the rate at which the digital tips have come in, he says, has been a surprise. His largest single tip: a $25 whopper. “Almost every day,” he says, “I’ll look at my phone and see that people have donated money.” 

And Bentz? “I’m saving up for a DipJar,” he said. According to its website, DipJar “… started as a way for baristas to accept cashless tips” and “eventually transformed into a way for nonprofits to revolutionize how they accept in-person donations.” It’s unclear whether Bentz will qualify, since buskers aren’t typically nonprofit organizations. At least, not on purpose.

Street performances aren’t the only frontier that digital payments are looking to conquer. ePaymentsblog recently reported on Oxford University’s Greater Change program, in which homeless people …

… wear QR codes around their necks, which are linked to an online profile of the person it belongs to. These QR codes enable money to be transferred to the person by scanning the code with a phone and making a digital payment. The initiative aims to support the poorest people by helping them off the street and into employment and accommodation with the money they individually raise.

The more we hear “digital payments are well and good, but what about …,” the more you can bet solutions will be coming soon.

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