Amazon.com Inc is considering whether to use its Alexa virtual assistant to start a person-to-person payments feature, a move that would push the retailing giant into new competition with PayPal Holdings Inc.’s Venmo and big banks’ payments efforts, according to people familiar with its strategy.
The Seattle company, which has expanded from online commerce to cloud computing and entertainment, is exploring new ventures and capabilities that could give it more power in a payments industry currently dominated by banks and card networks such as Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc.
Among the options being evaluated are ways in which consumers could tell Alexa to send money to a friend. The idea is still in the early stages, and the voice-activated device would likely need more information about customers’ bank accounts than it has now to execute such money transfers, people said.
The review is part of a broad effort at the company run by billionaire Jeff Bezos to expand in banking and finance. Amazon is working to add other payment options to Alexa, including allowing drivers of cars equipped with Alexa to pay for gas at a station via voice, according to the people.
Amazon is also looking at ways to enter in-store payments, while talking with big banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. about building a checking-account-like product.
Mr. Bezos gave employees a mandate last year to push financial services as a key initiative, according to a person briefed on the matter. The company also restructured internally to add its digital wallet, Amazon Pay, to its team that focuses on Alexa as part of plans to make voice commands the next wave of commerce, according to other people familiar with the company’s plans.
Last month, Amazon Pay Vice President Patrick Gauthier pitched retailers at a conference on using Alexa to help their customers pay. “We really invite all of you who…want to invent the future to actually come and do it with us,” he said.
Adding Amazon isn’t easy for retailers who have long viewed the online retailer as the revenue-sapping rival.
Amazon also faces challenges on other fronts. Technology firms are facing increased scrutiny of late over privacy practices. And President Donald Trump has singled Amazon out with tweets in recent days that criticized the company’s impact on traditional retailers and questioned whether it pays enough in taxes.
Since starting about two decades ago, Amazon has woven its way into consumers’ lives in new ways. Amazon’s push into the once-sleepy business of payments processing shows how it has been transformed. For years, Visa, MasterCard and a few others battled for market share of cards generally issued by banks. Now, a different battle is playing out with technology companies, such as Amazon, Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, trying to make payments, in many cases on mobile devices, easier for consumers while adding to their already formidable revenue streams.
It still is early days, as U.S. consumers haven’t flocked to mobile wallets yet like users in China and other economies have. Also, Amazon’s initiatives are unlikely to have a major impact on card networks or issuers, since consumers paying through Amazon accounts are usually doing it with a debit or credit card. But the company can still gain by gathering more data about consumer habits and using its size and leverage as a large retailer to negotiate lower fees from the card companies.
If Amazon can move more transactions to its own rails or get better deals from card companies, it could save more than an estimated $250 million in interchange fees each year, Bain & Co. consultants say.
Adding person-to-person payments could also build consumer loyalty around Alexa, which is locked in a battle against Google’s assistant. As a stand-alone, P2P business has generated far more buzz than it has profits for Venmo and its big-bank rival, known as Zelle.
Payments analysts say Amazon’s foundation in retail has helped it make more progress in payments than some rivals. “They focus on supporting their core competence, which is selling stuff,” said Thad Peterson, senior analyst who covers emerging payment technologies at research firm Aite Group.
In contrast with many rivals, Amazon Pay has largely focused on online shopping—a timesaving proposition for consumers who frequently abandon their shopping cart if they have to type in credit card information.
Now, Amazon is eyeing brick-and-mortar stores, starting with its recent acquisition of Whole Foods. As Amazon tries to get more merchants to add its payment option at the checkout, including online, some have resisted in part due to concerns that the move could remind consumers that they could return to the online retail giant’s site to complete the purchase.
A new, in-store payment method may ask consumers to use their Amazon accounts on a smartphone, pulling up a QR code to scan at the register. No cards or cash would be exchanged, though the transactions could still be linked to a credit or debit card. That is similar to the option currently used for checking out at Amazon Books, the company’s brick-and-mortar bookstore chain. Amazon is also hoping to further embed Alexa into the in-store shopping experience.
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