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We’ve been seeing Paytm stickers coming in offline stores all over, at least in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In the month of August, Paytm’s offline merchant transactions exceeded online transactions on the platform, CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma (VSS) told MediaNama, and a large part of this has been owing to a change in technology approach by the company. The company claims over half a million offline merchants now. Edited excerpts from MediaNama’s interview with VSS:

Took a call to focus on offline in 2016: “Every year we pick up a theme. When we first started, it was online recharges, the second year was online payment. Now, this year when we started we thought we would take up offline as a plan that we would have Paytm in every nook and corner (of the country). We thought that after Paytm, there should not be any pain-point left for anyone else to solve.

Online is great, online is nice and but this is where the bus is moving. But ultimately there is a larger customer base and transaction base which happens in the offline world. It was a very, I would say, uncanny for an online company to think of offline.

So we built our own software where we can track offline signups, sales-force automation and a lot things, so that we are disciplined. And I think we have more than half a million merchants signed up.

Update: VSS has clarified that the company refers to a transaction as “offline” when the merchant doesn’t have their own application, and is integrated only using the QR code, and not via the API. Thus, these will not include transactions made on the Uber app.

Dumb card, smart POS; smart phone and dumb POS: “I mean if you look at it, first of all, our understanding is that we have a different process versus other offline payment methods. Offline right now is dominated by Visa and MasterCard. American Express is also very small.

But the consumer has a dumb device called card, and what merchants carry is a smart device called POS with Internet connection. So, we are changing that structure. We are saying that merchant will not have a smart device or Internet connection, and consumer will have that. So payment happens via a QR code and the processing happens on the consumer side.

NFC versus QR code: “I think we saw it first in China, where QR codes dominate massively, and we had discussions with our friends in China (Alibaba) on why they chose to have QR code. I have personally have been a total non-believer of QR code in advertising, but when it came to payments it became important because the consumer and merchant have to communicate in a non technical way,and some way for the data to be given from consumer to merchant easily.

Whether you look at NFC, there is an investment that the merchant has to do. And if you use the smartphone as a consumer device the cost structure works in reverse in our case. The idea that we had is that every smartphone, technically, might not have NFC. But every smartphone does have a scanner.

So on the Paytm app, when you click on pay, the QR code scanner comes up.

Challenges in going offline: “So, it was three layers of new things. One for the consumer, it was new because they have never gone in the offline world and paid in any online payment instrument. We had to help with consumer mindset. Second is towards the merchant who are okay with cash and have no obligation to build a non-cash business. The third was that we had chosen a new technology, where the consumer and the merchant had to learn. But the thing that we found out was, in the end, it was so fast that I don’t think OTP or NFC or any other thing like MMID will work.

The point is that this is tokenization for your digital wallet.”

Sector choices for offline rollout: We started with the transportation vertical – autorickshaw, taxi, Uber, parking or petrol pump – where there is a lot of sale. Second place where we found the spends were in the groceries, fruits and vegetables etc and the third category was discretionary spends which was like shopping, quick service restaurants and restaurants. So we created three beats for these.

Our approach was that Delhi is the first city where you have to find the correct solution. Because in verticals like in parking, there would be Internet connectivity problems, while in QSR, payments need to happen very fast, and OTP would be very slow.

So we built the beta run in one city and then went to multiple cities. There is a team which builds solutions, and there is a second team which takes it to the market.

The teams which go to market look at top cities, mid-tier cities and long tail cities. We found it very surprising that in long tail cities, it increases sales for a merchant when they say that they accept Paytm.

There is also a number where you can dial and say that you want Paytm, and through this tens of thousands of merchants have been signed up. Consumers and merchants reach out to us just because somebody else has used it. Then there is a front-tail where we go to the shop, and we explain to them what the product is where they do merchant on-boarding, verification and give them QR codes. So two different processes, but both require the merchant to be on-boarded with full verification and documentation.

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Merchant transaction charges: In our case, the merchant pays 0%. So consumers will load money through credit cards and debit cards and pay to the merchant. So effectively, the merchant is effectively receiving credit and debit card payments at 0%. We make money which comes through the wallet, which is used on the Paytm network.

Another interesting thing is the money these merchants receive goes back to the network to be used and only 5% is sent back to the bank account.

(Editor’s note: Paytm charges charges 4% for wallet-to-bank account transfers for customers who have not completed their KYC and 1% for KYC compliant customers. That still is effectively lesser than card companies who effectively charge around 2.5% on transactions)

Paytm by the numbers

Paytm wallet users: 140 million
Monthly transactions: 75-90 million (as per media sources)
GMV (current): $5 billion
GMV projected by financial year end: $10 billion
Offline merchants: 500,000
Monthly offline transactions: 10 million per month
Employees: 4,500
Payments bank launch: Diwali 2016
Investors: Ant Financials (AliPay), Alibaba Group, SAIF Partners, Sapphire Venture and Silicon Valley Bank

Online vs offline growth: Our online was a bit like iOS growth. One successful merchant gave us another one. While with offline, it was more like Android growth: it just grew very fast. In the month of July, we just had it at the same level between offline and online. And in August offline overtook online. Basically now, Paytm does more offline merchant transactions than online.

Recharge now constitutes less than 20% of our business. That number is very small now because we have created so many uses cases. One thing we found out was, when you give your payment system to a merchant, the merchant’s experience becomes a part of the total experience. Consumer might prefer to pay through an instrument, but the process to reach the merchant payment instrument is so difficult, that the consumer might give up before that. We found out that the payment system should be there on the merchant’s side.

Concentration of cities & Ticket sizes: “Right now we are there in about 900 cities and towns. When we look at our payment consumer, where the median is bigger, as expected, it is coming from cities where the Internet connectivity is there. So top 10 cities will be constitute about 50%. Online transactions go through ecommerce merchants and have a larger ticket size. But if you look at offline transactions, payments in offline usage of wallet, there is a smaller order value.

Corrigendum: Paytm’s numbers weren’t accurately depicted earlier. Our apologies for the error.