From game-changer to game over: CurrentC leaves the field

At about the same time that executives from key payments players were gathering on-stage at ShopTalk Las Vegas for a panel discussion about mobile payments, the once-vaunted Merchant Customer Exchange was announcing yet another delay — this time, indefinite — in the rollout of its CurrentC mobile wallet, and the layoff of some 30 employees.

MCX did manage recently to test CurrentC in a single market — Columbus, Ohio — after multiple delays over the past four years. And CEO Brian Mooney said in a statement Monday that the company did receive generally positive feedback about the mobile wallet from consumers and merchants. Nevertheless, a nationwide rollout was not in the cards.

“Utilizing unique feedback from the marketplace and our Columbus pilot, MCX has made a decision to concentrate more heavily in the immediate term on other aspects of our business,” Mooney said in a statement. “As part of this transition, MCX will postpone a nationwide rollout of its CurrentC application. As MCX has said many times, the mobile payments space is just beginning to take shape — it is early in a long game. MCX’s owner-members remain committed to our future.”

MCX dropped the news on the same day that one of its premier partners, Wal-Mart, began the rollout of a similar product. Walmart Pay relies on QR codes in much the same way as CurrentC.

Mooney said that MCX will focus on working with financial institutions such as its current partner, JPMorgan Chase, “to enable and scale mobile payment solutions.” This approach is a complete 180 from one of the original ideas behind CurrentC.

“I find it really interesting that after spending years criticizing the networks and card-issuing banks for being greedy or not transparent enough, MCX will now be focusing its attentions on bank partnerships,” James Wester, research director of worldwide payment strategies at IDC Financial Insights, told Mobile Payments Today in an email. (Mobile Payments Today is a sister publication of ATM Marketplace.)

MCX, which counts the likes of Wal-Mart and Target as key members, came together almost four years ago as something of an act of defiance against the card networks. The coalition of retailers wanted to create a mobile payment system that relied on the ACH network, effectively cutting out the card networks from the process to avoid interchange fees.

But MCX faced battles on multiple fronts.

In October 2013, MCX announced at the Money20/20 conference that it was “within a stone’s throw of a pilot.” Wal-Mart payments guru Jamie Henry said at the time that, as member-owners, MCX merchants had an incentive to see CurrentC succeed.

But in the four weeks following the October 2014 debut of Apple Pay, things hit the fan for MCX.

First, MCX members CVS and Rite Aid turned off contactless terminals, refusing to accept Apple Pay due to their exclusive relationship with CurrentC, a mobile wallet that had yet to debut.

Toward the end of the month, MCX disclosed that unauthorized third parties had obtained the email addresses of early pilot participants. The same day, then-CEO Dekkers Davidson participated in a bizarre 45-minute teleconference, answering questions from reporters via chat box.

In November 2014, during an interview with Bloomberg at Money 2020, Davidson made the surprising statement that MCX would work alongside Apple Pay in its partner stores.

In April 2015, Davidson left the company and Mooney stepped in as CEO. Dekkers’ departure came shortly after Best Buy, an original MCX partner, announced that it would begin to accept Apple Pay in its U.S. locations later that year.

Soon after Mooney arrived, MCX took small steps to make CurrentC more appealing to merchants.

In August 2015 the company announced a strategic relationship Inmar Inc., a promotions management and processing firm. The plan was to offer CurrentC users product-level digital promotions to be applied automatically at checkout.

In September 2015, MCX expanded its CurrentC beta in Columbus and announced a partnership with Buy It Mobility Networks. The object of this relationship was to allow consumers to connect their checking accounts to CurrentC.

In November 2015, MCX seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough when it was announced at Money 20/20 that it would be a premium partner with Chase Pay.

“Our partnership links Chase and its customer base with CurrentC’s extensive network of leading retailers, restaurants, grocery stores and fueling stations, which process over a trillion dollars in transactions annually at more than 100,000 U.S. locations,” Mooney said at the time. “This is a significant milestone, not just for MCX and Chase, but for mobile payments overall as the industry continues to take shape. Everywhere CurrentC is accepted, Chase Pay will be accepted.”

At the time of the Chase Pay announcement, MCX was three years removed from its initial launch. And a lot had happened in that time: Apple Pay debuted; Softcard (aka Isis) folded when Google bought its assets for use in Android Pay; Samsung Pay was rolled out on some newer Samsung devices.

If not dead, MXC is now just clinging to life.

“They came [into the market] too late,” according to Thad Peterson, a senior analyst with Aite Group. “They took too long to get [CurrentC] onto the street. It took them almost four years to launch a pilot and that doesn’t work in this world. And the value proposition was never settled on either the consumer or merchant side.”

Wester, still believes that MCX can salvage something from CurrentC.

“Somewhere within MCX and CurrentC is the kernel of a good idea: a merchant-focused payment method to rival the networks,” he said. “Unfortunately, there have always been a lot of questions on the details behind that strategy that never seem to get answered.

And if payments is about anything, Wester said, it’s details.

“To make payments work reliably at the scale of MCX’s merchant partners requires a significant amount of coordination and cooperation between partners, and MCX was never very forthcoming on explaining how all the necessary partners were working together.”

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