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Square exec discusses metaverse, electronic payment trends

Millions of physical and online merchants use Square's payment processing services. We discuss retail tech trends with Roshan Jhunja, Square head of retail.

While massive retailers ponder the potential of the metaverse as their next revenue stream, it's far from most retailers' minds. Many have just gotten started with electronic payments technology.

But does the average Main Street retailer see these virtual goods and environments as a future profit center? We asked this and many more questions of Roshan Jhunja, general manager and head of retail for Square.

Square launched in 2009 as a means for small businesses to accept credit card payments and use tablets as point-of-sale registers. The company's bread-and-butter customers remain small and medium-sized businesses. That said, in its 13-year history, Square has expanded to consumer payments (Cash App), music streaming (Tidal), cryptocurrency (Spiral) as well as financial, payroll and human resources services including Afterpay, an installment-credit "buy now, pay later" company which -- along with its peers Klarna, Sezzle and Affirm -- has come under some scrutiny by the consumer press.

Square renamed itself Block in late 2021, but maintains many products and services under the Square brand.

Square launched e-commerce hosting. Why was it a good strategy to take on very established companies like Shopify, BigCommerce, Magento and even marketplaces like Amazon -- who in some cases are electronic payments partners of yours?

Roshan JhunjaRoshan Jhunja

Roshan Jhunja: Our DNA is in brick-and-mortar. You equate us with the pop-up store in the farmers market, the coffee store. It's always about the in-person payment. We're very much about enabling sellers primarily who have started offline, or in store settings, to transition online.

We have means for customers to build online stores, and you can sell on TikTok and Instagram. A lot of that was accelerated with pandemic. We kind of hustled to make sure sellers could pivot from their in-store to online selling experience. Now it's all a big, omnichannel continuum. That's where we're at; we're empowering sellers that know a lot about how to sell in person to tackle the very complex world of digital selling in all these different channels and marketplaces.

It launched right before the pandemic. Then what happened?

Jhunja: If you charted adoption as a curve, I think the pandemic pushed us a lot further along, more quickly. We were already going there. Most people, when they switch behavior -- whether that's a consumer wanting to buy online, or a seller wanting to start selling online -- they need some push, some reason to do it. That's either critical mass, like your customers coming in and asking, 'Why don't you have a website?' or sellers want to grow and appeal to some new demographic.

The pandemic was a powerful push because you had no other choice -- if you wanted to stay in business, you can't sell physically anymore, so everyone overnight was having to create sites and figure out the whole online thing. It forced a lot of rethinking and gave people a little bit of a kick that they wouldn't have otherwise had.

From your perspective of working with all retailers -- not just the big chains that are experimenting with the metaverse -- is there a much enthusiasm for selling in the metaverse?

Jhunja: Within our seller base -- typically small sellers, one to three physical brick-and-mortar locations, maybe online, with three employees -- we're listening for what they want us to do next. What are their customers asking them for? So far, their customers are asking them maybe to livestream sell on TikTok. These are the merchant's opportunities to connect to Conversational commerce. Or 'I want to be able to text back and forth and to have a checkout that way.'

I haven't heard a lot of demand yet from our sellers for the metaverse. When that shows up, 100% we're going to go check it out and see what we can offer them. The approach will be no different than our approach in any other shopping venue: Take something that's probably going to be pretty complex for the average seller to figure out on their own and make it accessible. Give them a way to take their existing catalog, promote it, figure out how to complete a sale on the metaverse.

The pandemic brought a rise in popularity for technologies that support credit and installment payments such as Klarna. Block bought Afterpay earlier this year. Why is there such enthusiasm for these automated services right now?

Jhunja: It's been growing like crazy, which is why we bought Afterpay. They got their start in Australia, where there's much bigger penetration of buy now, pay later, kind of like how livestream selling started in China. Will it still resonate with people in the United States? I think from what we're seeing the answer is yes. It tends to resonate well with a younger consumer demographic.

Gen Z either doesn't have access to credit -- they haven't built up enough credit history to earn traditional credit cards -- or they're just afraid of carrying debt and late fees. The nice thing about buy now, pay later is that if you miss a payment, the world stops and waits until you can catch up. They don't let you get dig yourself further into the hole. It also makes a large purchase more approachable. It's not sticker shock up front. You can spread it out a little bit. We're seeing a lot of traction online now. We're going to find out if that equates to in-store, as well. It's a pretty convenient way to pay that shoppers are growing accustomed to.

Have you heard any call among Square users for headless commerce, or is that way more sophisticated than they need?

Jhunja: I wouldn't say way more. We do have larger, more complex sellers that have their own developers and their own agencies. They want the customization, they want to configure things in a bespoke way, and we have that ability. If anything, we're building up a stable of recommended agency partners that know the Square ecosystem and how to work with it.

Who is the typical Square customer that is livestream selling? Is it a particular size of business, or are they selling certain kinds of goods that lend themselves to visualization?

Jhunja: It's no different than what the livestream sellers [everywhere] are finding success with, which is women's apparel. That's where it all kind of started. You also have a lot of women's accessories, like boutique handbags, high-end luxury apparel and unique accessories that are selling really well.

With the most popular livestream hosts -- this is a big part of livestreaming, by the way -- it's not just about what you're buying. It's about the personality and the quirks of the person that you're buying from who's showing you all the things and you're dancing around with them.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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