For digital-marketing agency Cooperatize.com, taking bitcoin for payment was easy enough. All co-founder Roger Wu had to do was obtain a digital wallet. To promote the move in 2014, he even penned a blog post for Forbes explaining the decision.
The number of bitcoin transactions the New York-based firm has made since? Zero.
“The biggest thing is, are people willing to pay in bitcoin?” Wu said. “The reality is that most of our customers are other businesses, and other businesses don’t use bitcoin.”
Even as the euphoria over bitcoin reached a fever pitch last week as the stock price surged to almost $3,000, slow transaction times and inertia are helping to prevent it from achieving widespread usage. Adoption has slowed, according to Morgan Stanley, after a slew of companies from Microsoft to Expedia initially trumpeted its use, and hurdles remain when it comes to longer-term viability.
“We see few reasons for consumers to use bitcoin over a credit/debit card given that paying online with bitcoin represents a marginally more inconvenient way to pay,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a 33-page report released June 13. Processing costs for bitcoin and other digital currencies are likely to grow, they said.
Time and Dell said they’ve stopped accepting the cryptocurrency, with the computer maker citing low usage. When website content management system WordPress stopped taking bitcoin in 2015, founder Matt Mullenweg said usage was “vanishingly small,” adding that it was initially incorporated for philosophical reasons, not commercial ones.
“It’s quite possible that after a while you just realize it’s not worth the cost of tooling up to take it and you decide to drop it if the publicity has run its course,” said David Yermack, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence the price surge has helped boost bitcoin’s use — albeit from a low base.
Payment processor BitPay said it’s now handling about $2 million in transactions a day, up almost threefold from April 2016. Coinbase’s volume has doubled since the start of the year. Online discounter Overstock.com, said it’s handling around 100,000 bitcoin transactions per week, up from about 30,000 when it first added the payment method in 2014.
“There is what might be called a wealth effect that occurs, so as price increases people actually counter-intuitively are more likely to spend bitcoin,” said Justin O’Brien, a manager at Coinbase in San Francisco, which has partnered with more than 46,000 businesses for bitcoin payment.
Yet paradoxically, there’s the question of whether its status as a red-hot asset is compatible with being a stable method of payment.
There’s the issue of volatility. This year has seen bitcoin surge and plunge by as much as 19 percent over the course of a day. As transactions rise, processing them is also becoming slower and more expensive.
“Time to clear single transactions can often be from 10 minutes to more than an hour,” the Morgan Stanley analysts wrote.
And probably most important, bitcoin isn’t recognized as legal tender. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has ruled that bitcoins are property, while regulators treat it as a commodity.
Most big businesses take bitcoin through payment processors such as BitPay and Coinbase. When a consumer makes a purchase, the conversion rate is based on the latest bitcoin price. The processors then convert the bitcoin immediately and pass the fiat currency to the seller, essentially removing all exposure to bitcoin’s volatility.
For merchants, Coinbase charges nothing for the first $1 million, and 1 percent of transaction values afterward. That compares with Visa’s roughly 2 percent interchange rate and almost 3 percent charged by PayPal.
The process is more complicated for shoppers. Unless your digital wallet is already on the platform that’s processing the payment, transferring bitcoins incurs a transaction fee, which can vary depending on its size, how quickly you want it processed and network conditions. The median transaction fee was $2.10 on June 15, compared with an all-time high of nearly $3, according to BitInfoCharts.
Sonny Singh, BitPay’s chief commercial officer, said bitcoin is more useful in emerging economies where trust in local currencies is weaker and credit cards are less common.
The cryptocurrency is making more headway in markets like Japan, which started recognizing digital currencies this year, and in Venezuela, where the bolívar is almost worthless. It’s also useful for businesses that can’t rely on traditional banking, such as cannabis sellers.