When it comes to how fintech and established financial institutions differ, much of the discussion centers around how firms are being challenged to improve their customer experiences and develop new financial offerings that appeal to changing consumer preferences.
In many cases, established firms are buying innovation by acquiring fintech upstarts. Examples of this include BBVA’s purchase of digital bank Simple and Goldman Sachs’ acquisition of personal finance and budgeting app Clarity Money.
But there’s another aspect to the fintech revolution: established companies are building and buying services that aren’t directly related to their core businesses.
One of the best examples of this trend is financial services giant American Express (Amex), which this month announced the acquisition of Resy, an online restaurant reservation platform that was reportedly the largest privately-held reservation platform in the US.
As the New York Times explained, Amex has offered dining benefits to its cardholders for years. These include a concierge service that can help cardholders book reservations at restaurants, including at hard-to-book locations that are part of its Global Dining Collection. According to the company, restaurant reservations are the most popular request of its concierge service.
Amex also offers cardholders access to exclusive events at partner restaurants. For example, select cardholders can attend By Invitation Only events such as a dinner and discussion with world-famous chef Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana has earned three Michelin stars and been named the
world’s best restaurant by The New York Times Style Magazine.
But the internet has complicated matters for Amex. Thanks to platforms like OpenTable, consumers have more options than ever for finding and booking tables, potentially diminishing the lure of its cardholder benefits.
In buying Resy, which was launched in 2014 and boasts that it seats over 2.6m diners each week across its 4,000 restaurant partners, Amex essentially acknowledged this.
“Resy was created to both connect people who love dining out with new, notable and hard to get into restaurants across the globe, as well as help restaurants’ businesses grow and thrive. Similarly, American Express has strong relationships with premium dining partners and restaurants across the
globe, and provides our Card Members with access to incredible dining experiences through our exclusive benefits and programs,” Chris Cracchiolo, Amex’s SVP of Global Loyalty and Benefits, stated. “We look forward to working with the Resy team to continue to grow the Resy digital platform, and develop new ways to further connect our Card Members and restaurant partners through unique access and experiences.”
The Resy acquisition isn’t the first in the space for Amex. In January, the company announced the acquisition of Pocket Concierge, a reservation platform in Japan that offers users access to tables at more than 800 premium restaurants in the country.
Interestingly, these acquisitions come less than a year after Amex launched its own app for VIP cardholders to book tables at restaurants.
It’s important to point out that reservation platforms can potentially help Amex build and strengthen relationships with merchants, not just consumers, but even so, a big question remains: what’s Amex’s end game in acquiring these platforms? Specifically, will it eventually use them to serve its cardholders exclusively, or it will it let them exist independently even if it complicates the ROI calculus?
When it acquired Pocket Concierge, Amex’s press release stated “Pocket Concierge plans to continue providing all existing services to its current customers and restaurant partners for the time being.” The last four words suggest that this could change, especially in light of a recent Amex acquisition of a digital service in the travel space.
In March, Amex acquired LoungeBuddy, a website that, in addition to reviews, offered users the ability to book access to airport lounges on a pay-per-use basis. Amex offers some of its cardholders access to airport lounges and when it announced its purchase of LoungeBuddy, also announced that the booking
feature would be available exclusively to its cardholders going forward.
Amex is not alone in adopting a strategy of buying digital players that aren’t traditional fintechs. For example, last year Capital One acquired coupon site Wikibuy, which it now brands as Wikibuy by Capital One.
But Amex appears to be one of the most aggressive financial services firms when it comes to opening its walled to build a portfolio of digital services that aren’t directly involved in financial services. For Amex, this is clearly both offensive and defensive.
On one hand, Amex is clearly trying to make itself more valuable to cardholders by offering them more digital services. It also stands to gain a treasure trove of data that it can put to use in a variety of ways.
On the other hand, parts of the company’s value proposition have arguably been disrupted by the kinds of digital companies it is buying. Specifically, services like Resy, Pocket Concierge and LoungeBuddy have made some of the benefits Amex has historically offered cardholders more accessible to a broader market.
Obviously, if making reservations at upscale restaurants and accessing airport lounges are things that just about anybody can do thanks to popular digital services, Amex cardholders could find that some of the key benefits that attracted them to Amex are no longer as attractive. Given the high level of
competition among credit cards, that could eventually spell trouble for Amex.
The stakes are high: compared to other credit cards networks, Amex cardholders reportedly have 60% higher incomes than non-Amex cardholders and spend substantially more on their cards as well. So Amex has unique incentives to try to ensure that is cardholders feel like the perks they receive are special. That’s potentially where its non-fintech digital acquisitions come in.
But will they pay off? That isn’t clear. Some have suggested that the company’s acquisition of Resy could have the ironic effect of strengthening OpenTable, the dominant reservations platform.
Whatever happens, Amex almost certainly won’t be alone in making non-fintech moves to bolster their businesses and the industry can expect other financial services firms, especially in the credit card and banking sectors, to adopt similar strategies.
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