Don Kingsborough could have called it quits. The man who founded Worlds of Wonder Toys, famous for Teddy Ruxpin and helping lead the introduction of Nintendo in the U.S., and the former president of of consumer products at Atari, was just winding down his time last year at Blackhawk Network, a pre-paid card company that he had sold to supermarket Safeway. With his options expiring, he decided to sell and contemplated retirement.
But then PayPal came calling, and Kingsborough couldn’t resist the opportunity to make one more big stab at shaking up the retail world. Kingsborough joined PayPal in March 2011 as VP for retail and prepaid products, heading up PayPal’s efforts to launch an in-store payment system.
In his first extensive interview since joining PayPal, Kingsborough said he wasn’t just interested in extending his career; he saw a huge chance to fundamentally change the way people shopped in retail stores as digitalization moved payments beyond cash and credit. And he believes that PayPal is uniquely positioned to bring that vision to market.
“I thought someone would be able to change the way people shop, but I didn’t think it would be a startup because this will happen quickly and you also need brands that people trust. And PayPal is one of them. It takes the combination of a trusted payment company and the cooperation with great brands that people trust to change how people shop. I thought I would be able to convince all the major retailers all around the world because I have had relationships with them for 30 years,” Kingsborough said.
Even with the departure of PayPal’s president Scott Thompson, who is now Yahoo’s new CEO, PayPal hasn’t missed a beat and is executing on its vision, Kingsborough said.
Solving consumer and merchants needs
Kingsborough came in and honed the in-store payment initiative, which was underway well before Kingborough arrived. He focused on appealing first to consumers and making it simple for them to grasp, before ensuring the merchants could be able to understand the value of the system. Then he went about getting the cooperation of merchants, criss-crossing the country to call upon retailers and payment infrastructure companies to get them on board. Along the way, he helped PayPal pick up necessary components like location-based service WHERE, whose CEO Walt Doyle was personally persuaded to sell by Kingsborough. The plan is now to start rolling out the payment system in the second quarter though the first U.S. trials have already begun with Home Depot.
Kingsborough said he was drawn to PayPal’s approach to payments because it was aimed at solving deep consumer and merchant needs. He said competitors who focus on near field communication and other alternative payment systems are too often preoccupied with the capabilities of their technology, but they’re not addressing the pressing needs of users.
“Competitors think they’ll solve how easy it is to pay at retail, but that’s not a consumer problem. Their problem is how do they become masters of shopping and use their money smartly and organize their efforts to shop online, in-store and on mobile,” said Kingsborough. “We have a holistic approach. We ask the consumers [what they] want to do. They want to save money, save time and feel important in stores.”
NFC: a feature, not a solution
That’s partly why he thinks NFC in particular isn’t ready for prime time. He said it’s going to take a while for it to proliferate in stores and on handsets. But more fundamentally, it doesn’t make consumer’s lives better.
“Do I think NFC will work someday? Maybe. But to me, NFC is a feature, not a solution that solves problems. If your strategy is NFC today, you need a new strategy,” Kingsborough.
Google and Isis, the carrier consortium including Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, are pushing hard on NFC and are angling to become the go-to mobile wallet for users, who will be able to pay at point-of-sale terminals with a tap of their phone. Many of the pieces for NFC fell into place for the technology in 2011, though there are still many hurdles ahead toward a broad rollout (subscription required) and mass consumer adoption.
PayPal’s approach bypasses many of the hardware constraints of NFC and pushes a two-pronged approach to in-store payments. Users can either use a PayPal Access card connected to their account, or more intriguingly, enter their phone number and PIN at a POS terminal and access their PayPal account. PayPal takes a user’s identification and turns it into a token, which is authenticated in the cloud, so no actual credit card numbers or financial data travels back and forth.
What it takes to win
Kingsborough said the companies that win will be comprehensive and ubiquitous, allowing consumers to conduct transactions wherever they want to. By going with a software-based approach, PayPal can address about 8.2 million of the 10 million point of sale terminals with its payment system, without forcing retailers to buy new hardware. Then it’s up to PayPal to convince retailers to jump on board. It’s doing some critical work by signing deals with payment infrastructure companies like AJB Software Designs, which helps connect the point of sale terminals at many tier-one retailers to payment processors and financial institutions. Merchants that use AJB will have an easy path in enabling PayPal payments in store. PayPal is talking to other point of sale companies such as Verifone.
Merchants won’t just be getting a potentially cheaper alternative to credit cards. In PayPal’s vision, they’ll also be getting a way to push out offers to consumers, both in-store and nearby. Kingsborough said PayPal is working through its mobile app to address a variety of needs of merchants, from helping them manage online, mobile and in-store sales to improving loyalty and offering targeted discounts to users. Those additional tools will be rolled out over time in the next year or two. Google has outlined early plans to also provide coupons and offers to consumers using Google Offers in conjunction with Google Wallet.
But the other important winning determinant will be providing valuable, relevant and easy-to-use services to consumers, becoming the one mobile wallet they turn to, said Kingsborough. He said using tools like WHERE’s targeting and location technology will allow merchants to not just push out deals but deliver very context-aware content. For example, he said a clothes retailers might be able to message a nearby customer, letting them know they’ll earn $5 in their PayPal account that day if they buy jeans that they’ve purchased in the past. And, with the right permissions, the merchant may also be able to know the customer is with two friends and offer a group discount.
“It’s not just the capabilities of location-based services or understanding what a person just did; but it’s about being highly relevant to the person using the services,” Kingsborough said.
He said in the battle to become the preferred digital wallet, PayPal will be the simplest for people to use, allowing people to link their credit, debit and loyalty cards, even potentially their drivers license. Just as people stick primarily to one browser, he said consumers will want to rely on primarily one wallet and he believes that PayPal will be that provider.
“Ours to lose”
Kingsborough said it’s the whole offering that makes PayPal’s approach a winner. It’s a trusted name with more than 100 million users worldwide and it’s focused on providing value to both consumers and merchants with an easy path to ubiquity.
“This is ours to lose,” he said. “I’m very confident about that. Otherwise, I’d be golfing right now in Hawaii.”