Whatever happened to …

MissedNow and then comes an innovation poised to change the world. But then years pass, and suddenly someone says, “Whatever happened to …”

That’s when we realize that, contrary to expectation, no one really wanted Crystal Pepsi, a Segway, an Apple Newton (the handheld device), an Apple Newton (the cookie), or Chippy after all.

Marketing research firm NewProductWorks maintains a museum of failed products in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Last count, it boasted some 140,000 exhibits. Open only to NPW clients, it serves as a monument to What Not to Do. Not an NPW client? No need to fret. Museum of Failure, aka MOX, keeps smaller collections open to the public in Sweden and Los Angeles.

While a variety of casualties litter the failed product graveyards, the remains of relatively few payment systems are to be found among them. That could be because the category is a relative newcomer compared with, say, packaged cereals. It could also be because other companies may cart off the body and use it for parts.

Take, for instance, CurrentC, part of Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX for short. Created in 2011, MCX promised a much-anticipated antidote to Visa’s and Mastercard’s interchange rates. It was no small enterprise. Nicholas L. Johnson reported for Applico that participants included …

Walmart, Target, Best Buy, CVS, Shell, Olive Garden, Lowes, Michaels, Sears and more. Collectively they operated more than 110,000 retail locations and processed $1 trillion in payments annually … CurrentC would work through bank accounts and ACH transactions to enable payment processing at a much lower cost. The app would also incorporate retailers’ existing loyalty programs and provide them with more data on their consumers.

CurrentC failed out of the chute. With hindsight, the reason seems obvious: CurrentC filled a need for merchants but not for consumers. To the latter, CurrentC was just another credit card in an already cluttered field. You won’t, however, find a decaying CurrentC corpse in any graveyard or museum. In early 2017, Chase took possession of CurrentC’s remains in order to incorporate some of its technology into its own payment app.

Still, there are some deceased payments systems lying around on the battlefield. One of these would be Eaze, which bellyflopped upon its 2014 launch, as reported by PaymentsSource. The bellyflop may have had something to do with the fact that Eaze’s hardware relied on none other than Google Glass. A $1500 price tag placed the gadget out of reach for many, while increasing numbers of venues banned the geekish goggles for fear of wearers taking surreptitious videos. Unaffordable and unwelcome, Google Glass departed consumer shelves, leaving Eaze to wither and die. (It didn’t help that Eaze read QR codes. You don’t see those widely used these days, either.)

Another failed payments product would be Blippy. I suppose you could have called it an attempt at a social credit card. With each use, it automatically posted to its own social media site what you bought, where you bought it, and what you paid for it. Before you scoff at the idea, consider the number of people who seem to think that you and I are eager to see the meal they’re about to consume in their favorite restaurant. Blippy went into beta testing toward the end of 2009 and wasn’t heard from again. It seems that consumers are more interested in looking at pictures of food and kittens than in knowing what you just paid for a swimsuit at Abercrombie.

You may recall much ado about Pay By Touch. It was exactly what the named implied: A point-of-sale keypad using fingerprint ID to access shoppers’ credit cards. PaymentsSource reported that Pay By Touch “… filed for bankruptcy in late 2007 after failing to meet payroll obligations, and shut down its payment system in March 2008 …” possibly because it was “… too far ahead of its time.” In this, PaymentsSource may have erred on the side of generosity. Digital marketing agency Single Grain CEO Eric Siu wrote for Forbes that Pay By Touch founder John P. Rogers …

… began throwing outrageous parties and even offered drugs to coworkers. He was accused of sexual misconduct. He allegedly wanted to hire and offer shares of stock to attractive women he met on the street … Despite an absolutely brilliant business idea and all the talent, money and direction needed to see it succeed, Pay By Touch was reduced to rubble by a single bad egg in the basket. Rogers was a con man. 

Finally, Robinhood deserves mention. Having succeeded at eating brokerages’ lunch with its commission-free investment model, Robinhood decided to challenge banks head-on. This they did at the end of 2018 when they announced checking and savings accounts that were not only free but would earn about 30 times the interest rate that banks were paying at the time. Trouble was, the accounts weren’t insured by the FDIC but by the SIPC, and Robinhood hadn’t troubled to inform the latter of its plans. Though not required, looping in the SIPC is prudent. Taken by surprise by the Robinhood announcement, SIPC president and CEO Stephen Harbeck publicly voiced “serious concerns.” UBS analyst Brennan Hawkins called Robinhood’s new products “significant overreach.” Robinhood immediately withdrew the products, with co-CEOs Baiju Bhatt and Vlad Tenev blogging, “… we realize the announcement may have caused some confusion.”

I always look forward to the next innovation. Here’s hoping that more fly than flop.

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