The 350-Year-Old British Post Office Is Leading The Mobile Payments Charge

You listening, USPS? And they aren’t the only British organization going mad for mobile.

pay as you enter


The British Post Office, a company that can trace its roots back to 1660, is leaping with both feet into the 21st century and the NFC payments game. The PO is rolling out NFC-compatible payment systems to each of its branches across the country starting this week, beginning with 200 stores near Olympic venues. That means 11,500 branches will soon be NFC-capable, supporting the many credit and debit cards issued by British banks that are already NFC-enabled, and making sending a parcel or buying stamps just that bit quicker because the payments for amounts beneath £20 don’t need a PIN or signature. In one swoop this decision is turning the 350 year-old Post Office into the biggest adopter of contactless payments in Europe.

The greater mobile pay industry has been especially active of late. PayPal just announced it’s expanding efforts in mobile payments in the U.K. A short list of major retailers have signed up to a new experiment so that, PayPal notes, customers can “pay for their shopping…with their smartphones.” The PayPal inStore works by displaying a barcode on the smartphone’s screen which is scanned by the traditional cash-register barcode reader. Instead of swiping your nasty old-tech credit card through a reader, the clerk simply scans your phone. A boon because, as the company notes: “It even works when there is no mobile or Wi-Fi signal!” That’s true, although it also means the system is devoid of all the clever, useful, experience-enhancing powers of NFC like enabling coupon-sharing and loyalty card updates right at the moment of purchase because there’s no interaction between the phone and the store’s payment system.

But it does mean that the retailers that PayPal has signed up will not have to update their expensive legacy cash register technology–it’ll work with just a tweak to the software running in them. In one swoop this places PayPal’s “next gen” tech in the minds of the retailer, and the millions of shoppers who visit these stores–some of whom will happily hand over their phones to pay using the system.

All this at the same moment that Intel has plans to combat the dominance of ARM chips in smartphones, which potentially puts a crimp in Intel’s future. A new Intel-powered Android device for the U.K. market has just been revealed, the Orange San Diego, and it’ll be hitting the shelves soon both as an on-contract device, and as a pay-as-you-go phone (tapping the popular pre-pay service in the U.K.) for just £200, about $300. And it has an interesting secret inside: NFC interaction as standard, making it compatible with a host of wave-and-pay services.

Britain’s public transport has been key to the national character for a good century or so, and now NFCWorld reports that national bus operator Stagecoach is testing an NFC ticketing system in Cambridgeshire in partnership with Everything Everywhere–a cellphone operator that includes T-Mobile and Orange. As well as NFC tickets, it’s also compatible with NFC-capable cellphones–like the San Diego–and Stagecoach plans to roll out the service to many of its bus and rail services across the nation in 2013. That means NFC ticketing options will soon be accessible by many of Stagecoach’s 2.5 million daily passengers.

And lest you think Brits are simply going to pay for the Royal Mail and the odd bus ticket into town using NFC, consider that back in March the city of Reading was blanketed with NFC-capable advertising as part of an experiment between advertising-hoarding giant JC Deceaux and big-name British brands. 


Why’s Britain going crazy over mobile payment technology? Partly it’s due to moves like the government’s decision to create a national standard wireless ticketing standard, which simplifies the choice of compatible technology. And the highly digital Olympics may also be a galvanizing event, encouraging all sorts of high-tech advances. But Juniper Research has a few numbers in a recent study that support the idea that NFC adoption is actually going to happen sooner rather than later: It predicts that by 2017, one in four consumers in the U.S. and Western Europe will be using NFC pay as a standard way for paying for things in-store. Gartner also released a study, and though it was more cautious about the role of NFC, it that showed that mobile payments are going to skyrocket in spectacular fashion with worldwide transactions predicted to top $171.5 billion this year, up nearly 62% over last year. 

[Image: Flickr user futureshape]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.