Credit unions make up a substantial number of the financial institutions that have enrolled with Apple Pay, and some unofficial lists suggest the majority of early uptake is coming from credit unions.
Big-bank brands have been more prominent in Apple's marketing, which features the logos of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The only credit union listed on the Apple Pay website is Navy Federal Credit Union, which has $60 billion in assets and five million members.
But Apple Pay doesn't play favorites. It doesn't choose which card to use based on the issuer's size or its business model. By default, Apple Pay uses the first card a consumer links to it. In this way, a smaller credit union can beat out a top-10 bank by being faster to support the Apple mobile wallet.
"Credit unions don't want to be left out of the picture," said Michelle Thornton, manager of core products for CO-OP Financial Services, a credit union service organization based on Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. "If consumers want to do Apple Pay and the credit union doesn't participate, what does that say?"
Navy Federal Credit Union did not comment specifically on Apple Pay's Oct. 20 launch, but it issued a press release in September to say Apple Pay would expand mobile options for its largely military client base, which relies on remote access to financial services. USAA, a cooperative, member-owned financial institution, is also bullish on Apple Pay. Apple did not return a request for comment by deadline.
"It doesn't surprise me, and from a standpoint that we're stressing cybersecurity it's a good thing," said NCUA Vice Chairman Rick Metsger, adding the security technology used by Apple Pay, such as tokenization and TouchID, can mitigate the payments fraud threat. "I'm encouraged to see that so many credit unions have embraced technology that attempt to increase the security of the payment system. You don't have to be a multibillion dollar financial institution to implement a high level of security."
"Credit Unions are the most customer-focused segment of retail financial services, since their owners are their customers," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "So anything that they can do to add value to the customer experience, particularly at little or no out-of-pocket cost for the credit union, would be a win for the organization and its members."
CO-OP is supporting Apple Pay, and is working with Visa and MasterCard to enroll credit unions, Thornton said. "Even though there's been some early problems, most people are pretty excited about Apple Pay," she said.
CO-OP also has its own mobile wallet, primarily enabling person-to-person transfers, and it is evaluating how to best integrate other mobile commerce options, including Apple Pay. The CUSO is looking to provide options when adopting mobile payments.
While Apple had early success gaining commitments from issuers and merchants, including merchants from the rival MCX wallet, banks are not universally accepting Apple with open arms. There's concern that Apple's brand and ability to enroll consumers may dilute banks' consumer relationships and impair their mobile strategy.
"Credit unions are also concerned about their brand being superseded by Apple," Thornton said, adding many credit union members use Apple products, which makes Apple Pay part of the credit union service mission. "Apple has huge loyalty," she said.
Apple's own relationship with consumers is an important factor for credit unions, said Rick Oglesby, a senior analyst and consultant at Double Diamond Payments Research.
"Many consumers have deep emotional connections with Apple, so it makes sense for credit unions to align themselves with that connection," Oglesby said. "Finally, the fact that the major banks jumped on board with Apple represents a competitive threat that the credit unions have obviously decided to match."
The brand connection to Apple may actually help credit unions, Peterson said.
"It's also a way to maintain a competitive, leading-edge position with their members with little risk, and they can associate their brand with Apple. All good," he said.