When somebody tells you they're a "payment nerd," that's gotta be a good sign.
And this is basically how Elle Kim, Samsung's new VP of business development for Samsung Pay, introduced herself to me at the company's headquarters in Suwon, South Korea (which I visited as part of a 19-day tech-seeking trip through Asia).
As the daughter of a "payment nerd" myself (my dad worked in payments for over 20 years before retiring), this was all the invitation I needed to probe Kim about everything that Samsung Pay is, isn't, and could be in the next few years.
I'll get into that below, but for those of you who are less enthusiastic about mobile payments than I am, my big takeaway from the interview is that Samsung wants to build out Pay so it helps you do things in your life other than buy a coffee -- like earn loyalty points, hop on public transit, and buy things so naturally and easily that you barely have to think about it.
"How do you have this integrated experience where the value is beyond paying?" said Kim, who moved to Seoul about two months ago from New York. "What more do you get than just paying?"
"[The] dream concept," she added, "is being in a parking lot, driving the [new] car out, and knowing that payment happened. You don't have to think about it."
Here's what else we talked about, payment nerd to (almost) nerd.
Samsung Pay in Korea is a step ahead of Samsung Pay in the rest of the world
Samsung has enormous sway in its home country of Korea, so it makes sense that the Samsung Pay team rolls out features here first. "I almost see Korea as our test bed," Kim said.
In the motherland, Samsung Pay supports:
- Your ATM card, not just a credit card
- Your transit card (this is detected automatically at the turnstile)
- Membership and loyalty cards that earn points at local retailers
- Authorizing ATM transactions, which you can start before you get to the ATM
- Online payments
- Digital cards you can sign up for through the app, which link to your bank account
P.S. I went out and about with the Samsung team to try some of the features you can only use in Korea -- check it out in the slideshow below.
Will it get mobile-only capabilities like China's Alipay and WeChat's wallet?
Right now, Samsung Pay is a physical thing. You tap or hold the phone near something before anything else can happen -- either an NFC transaction or one that mimics the magnetic strip of a credit card swipe (this is called MST, or magnetic secure transmission).
I was impressed with the deep ecosystem of mobile payments that I saw in China, and asked Kim if Samsung plans to integrate its own suite of online-only features that don't require any physical tap or hover -- things like summoning and paying for an Uber ride or food delivery right from the app.
For now, it sounds like the answer is "no." In the near term, Samsung is focused on getting people used to making buyers comfortable using their phones in place of their wallets.
"We're literally trying replicate that card experience," Kim said. "We're still teaching consumers about just getting into the habit of tapping and paying."
But that doesn't mean Alipay and WeChat wallet aren't potential fonts of inspiration. "It sounds like they've got a few of the pieces that we really want to build out," Kim said.
What about competing with Android Pay and Apple Pay?
When I asked about what Samsung Pay is doing to edge out Apple and Google's own competing, proprietary payment systems, Kim stuck with the politic view that the more players there are right now to educate users, the quicker mobile payments will start becoming second nature, and that's good for everyone.
"What I think about a lot is what's unique and different about us," Kim said, noting that right now all the wallets are essentially the same in countries like the US.
"The thing that makes us stand out right now is the MST technology...we were able to do that because we built a little coil into [our] phones."
Still, Kim says that Samsung Pay and its rivals will branch out as they evolve, wrapping a better experience around the phone, an experience that goes beyond the app and becomes a service that uses the phone as its point of entry. In other words, the phone will be the key that unlocks the mobile payment things you want to do.
Faster global rollout?
Right now, Samsung Pay is live in Korea and the US, and recently in China. Spain, Australia, Canada, the UK and Brazil are next. I asked if Samsung plans to accelerate its global rollout.
"I'd love to launch 50 countries," Kim said, "but payments...it's not a snap. You actually have to build the partnerships [with banks and local governments, for example] and the products...it's a manual effort."
Will Samsung ever open up Samsung Pay beyond its own ecosystem?
This, too, sounds like a no.
"We talk about that a lot. We talk about lots of various on what we could do with the features," Kim said. Samsung's security software, KNOX, is built into the hardware, and so is MST.
"If we take a service and pull it out of our phones, we have to see if there's just as much value," Kim added. "That's just not a core part of our thinking." But here's what is: getting people to covet Samsung's services enough to come to the ecosystem -- and to a Samsung phone -- on their own.
What's going to be exciting about mobile payments going forward?
While the phone will always be how you interact with what Samsung Pay (and other payment apps) will do, going forward, the Samsung Pay team will build out different ways to use the biometric authentication of your fingerprint, for example, to do different things to enrich your life.
"Maybe you can get [store loyalty] points for how many miles you've walked," Kim said. "If one person thinks it's great, everybody has to try it."