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The Gift Card Sector Comes of Age. Part 5 of 5: Disruption – The Slow Rise of Pre-paid Cards as a Financial Force

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In this five part series, we have referred to gift cards and pre-paid cards interchangeably when traditionally there have been key differences – most notably that gift cards are generally one-time use, have no/few fees, and are not re-chargeable. But this reference was deliberate as emerging gift card solutions are empowering retailers to compete at the pre-paid card level. Which in turn enables retailers (many of whom already offer financial services) to become even more bank-like, but at lower cost and a more holistic view of the lifetime customer.

In this last post, we will look at two of the companies contributing to this shake-up – an emerging start-up featured as one of the 2015 Money20/20 Launchpad companies – Slide – and an established and rapidly growing alt fin services provider Cards.com.

Gift/Pre-paid Cards Will Permanently Replace Some Bank Accounts.

As previously discussed in this series, for Millennials and those entering the U.S. financial system for the first time, there is no really compelling reason to have a bank account. Even with rising interest rates, the return on holding your money in a bank is magnitudes lower than any number of alternative investment vehicles. Particularly for younger consumers who have low/no savings and high debt, using financial services that are low cost in absolute terms – not relatively speaking –are a priority. Dwolla and other low cost non-bank alternatives will likely see a spike in users in the coming years, particularly in the advent of a recession.

Slide: Gift Card Management for Consumers, A Platform for Retailers

Into this environment where many can “take or leave” the bank, there are increasingly viable, highly usable and even fun alternatives. Seed-funded Slide made its fintech industry debut at last year’s Money 20/20 conference, debuting at the show a suite of mobile gift card management features that presents the consumer user with the ability to manage their gift cards all in a single wallet app. As compelling from the retailer’s perspective, the company enables the consumer to buy – and reload – their gift cards in a theoretically infinite number of designs, adding a level of engagement with the brand not available on typical gift card sites, which tend to present brands in a mass market, commoditizing the value of the gift card itself and burying the brand in a sea of logos. The company’s plans include adding the ability to instantly trade and transfer gift cards, placing the start-up in the realm of P2P payments.

What’s interesting about Slide are its initial users, who are not so much the typical tech early adopter, but who are more representative of the general population, such as mothers. According to Slide co-founder and CEO Mike Morris (formerly with American Express), “Slide users come from pretty much every corner/pocket across the country who share such common pain as managing their gift cards.”

Retailers, some of whom have previously declined to have their gift cards sold online, are signing up with Slide. Morris observes that “The e-gift card industry is growing by 44% year-over-year, and merchants seem to be waking up to the fact that their gift card programs are generally underutilized and can be leveraged to engage and delight customers in new ways through digital experiences.”

Card.com: Branchless Bank with $450 Million in Deposits – and Counting

Last fall, CARD.COM announced $9 million in growth funding to expand its mobile tech offering and to move from word of mouth to marketing-driven customer acquisition. With over $450 million in deposits to date, CARD.com has clearly made in-roads into its goal of becoming a leading non-bank financial institution.

While CARD.com has no branches, 85% of their customers use their mobile app monthly, compared to the banking industry average of 30%. The remaining percentage use the service via the company’s website. Significantly, as a SaaS (software-as-a-service), the company can scale up quickly to meet demand. Where it has run into some issues, and where it plans to invest significantly, is in the area of real-time customer service. New service introductions can also be introduced relatively quickly as compared to the banks, with CARD.com set to launch sub accounts (for spouses, teens, domestic helpers, etc.). Much like Slide, CARD.com is seeing significantly traction amongst moms. And compared to non-card focused branchless banks GreenDot and NetSpend, CARD.com reports that over 85% of their deposits are direct deposits of paychecks (as compared to a 30-40% range) – and their number of deposits is significantly larger, despite having only launched three years ago. As a point of comparison — the mobile banking sector today represents only 2 million accounts out of a total 14 million (inclusive of those doing mobile banking via branched banks) according to the Digital Bank Report. CARD.com in comparison has more than 600,000 accounts.

The main driver behind this success? Customized cards and attention to serving the customer, even if that customer is unbanked. The service offers “Fair, Fashionable and Fun online prepaid card solutions” and treats its customer “as an individual who is cool like James Dean, sultry like Bettie Page or a cat-lover with a heart of gold. CARD.com lets you represent the things you care about, with awesome perks along the way.” Clearly not your average bank.

Going into 2016, the remaining stigmas against gift cards will be further chipped away as the sector matures beyond paycheck deposits and retail goods. In October 2015, Stockpile.com raised $15 million in a Series A round from superstar VC Sequoia Capital and rockstar actor Ashton Kutcher, amongst others. The service will enables consumers to buy company stock via gift cards at retail locations, helping to democratize and demystify investments (not good news for the few remaining retail Wall Street brokers).

Suffice it to say, gift cards are at the least hot. And on a relatively slow but steady trek towards true consumer financial revolution.