Whenever he needs to pay for something, be it a stick of gum or a hotel room, investor and entrepreneur Roger Ver asks the same question: “Do you accept bitcoin?”
In the brick and mortar world, the answer is usually no. But he says that merchants are open to the idea.
“After they hear from me a couple of times, a lot of times they start accepting bitcoin,” Ver said.
Speaking at the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose today, Ver exhorted an audience of mostly young men to do the same, and to evangelize for the digital currency to help it achieve mainstream use.
“The vast majority of people haven’t even heard of Bitcoin yet,” he said. “If Bitcoin has this many people this excited now, wait till the rest of the world actually hears of it. That’s our job, is to let people know … how it can make their life better and easier. The world is just going to love it.”
While merchants pay credit-card companies 2 to 3 percent — sometimes even as much as 9 percent — to process payments, Ver said, “with bitcoin, you can send and receive money anywhere in the world essentially for free.”
Merchants that don’t want to hold bitcoins can convert payments into their local currency for a fee of about 1 percent, he added.
The other major advantage Bitcoin brings to businesses, Ver said, is helping them avoid the fraud and chargebacks that happen with credit card purchases.
Credit-card companies can force merchants to refund a buyer’s money if the customer is not happy with a purchase. But with bitcoins, the funds are transferred for good. The only way for a refund to happen is if the merchant willingly pays the buyer back.
With his own e-tail business, Bitcoin Store, Ver said these savings allow him to undercut Amazon’s prices. He sells electronics through a partnership with Ingram Micro, with no markup at all … mainly as a way to pressure other retailers to accept bitcoins, he said.
“If we make money we hope to do it by holding the bitcoin,” Ver said, noting that he’s bullish on the currency’s future value.
Ver also holds investments in a number of Bitcoin-related companies, including Bitpay.
The privacy inherent in bitcoin transactions — as with cash, no statement comes in the mail showing who you’ve paid for what — can also make life easier for certain businesses, Ver said.
He shared an anecdote about a company selling adult services in Japan. Chargebacks are often a problem for such companies, when wives discover charges for racy services on credit-card bills and husbands deny having made them. If the wife calls the credit company to report the charge as fraud, the company often has to refund the money, Ver said.
Accepting bitcoins could make that whole scenario go away, leaving the companies, the clients and potentially even their spouses happier, Ver said. Men who want to keep their transactions private transactions could simply use cash to buy bitcoins without leaving a paper trail, he said, while “The wife is glad because their credit card is no longer getting ‘stolen’.”
For online companies, Ver continued, accepting bitcoins not only cuts fraud losses but can open up new markets where it would otherwise be too risky to accept credit cards.
“You can’t accept credit cards from certain countries,” he said. “If somebody wants to buy something from you from Indonesia with a credit card, almost certainly it’s going to be credit-card fraud.”
With bitcoins, though, an online merchant can feel just as safe accepting a payment from Indonesia as from Indiana.
To be sure, there have been hackings and thefts of bitcoins, Ver noted. But these have revealed weaknesses in the security of the sites that were hacked, not in the currency itself, he said. A bitcoin heist is no more indicative of a problem with Bitcoin than a bank robbery in London means there is a problem with British pounds.
During Ver’s talk, one audience member asked whether businesses should worry about a more systemic hack or technical problem that could cause the whole Bitcoin system to topple.
“There is a risk of that,” Ver acknowledged. “But as every day goes by that there hasn’t been a major catastrophe, (the risks) are lower and lower.”
Another audience member voiced concern that bitcoin transactions lack the consumer protections that credit cards offer — like those chargebacks that merchants so dislike. For trusted merchants, such as Amazon, Ver said, this won’t be a problem for most consumers.
For large transactions with unfamiliar merchants, however, Ver said buyers might want to turn to one of the new bitcoin escrow services … or just choose to use a credit card instead. But as more and more applications and services spring up to fill both merchants’ and shoppers’ needs, Ver said he feels confident that the number of transactions where shoppers feel they need to use credit cards will become fewer and fewer.
“The step from where we are today to getting widespread adoption is just making it easier to use,” Ver said.
“It’s just a question of how soon we’re going to see widespread adoption. It’s not a question of ‘if’.”