Google Wallet Takes On Apple’s Passbook With Support For Loyalty Cards, Coupons, Offers & More

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Google today announced a new version of its mobile payments platform, Google Wallet, which now allows users to send money to friends directly from credit and debit cards or a bank or Wallet balance; store loyalty cards and join related programs; and store and use Google Offers, Valpak coupons, and more. This represents a major upgrade for an application that, to date, has somewhat struggled to gain consumer adoption due to blocking measures from mobile operators in the U.S. Several of them are stalling to support the app while pushing forward their competing agendas involving the mobile payments platform called Isis.

Google Wallet’s latest additions, while notable, are not entirely surprising. The company launched Wallet integration with Gmail earlier this year to take advantage of Gmail’s massive footprint as the leading online email service. (Gmail supports some 425 million users, though many are not based in the U.S. where Wallet currently works.) Select Gmail users have been receiving invites to use Wallet in Gmail, with the most recent batch rolling out this past July. Now, interested users who have yet to receive their Wallet invites for Gmail have another way in: Google says you’ll get desktop access to the Gmail feature by simply sending money using the Google Wallet app.

Wallet users can send money to anyone in the U.S. with an email address, provided that they’re 18 and older, using their Wallet balance, a linked bank account, credit or debit card.

Another useful integration launching today is support for loyalty cards in Wallet, something that hints at Wallet’s more ambitious plans to replace users’ actual billfolds, but also at its failure to become a standardized way to pay at point-of-sale, thanks to its reliance on NFC. Today, NFC still lacks ubiquitous infrastructure in the U.S., disinterest from Apple, and even limited support on Android devices.

To take advantage of the new loyalty features, Wallet users can now scan the barcode on their loyalty cards or input their card number directly into the Wallet app, and then scan the app at checkout to earn points. Users are also able to join select loyalty programs within the revamped app, including  Alaska Airlines, Red Mango, and Belly, the Chicago-based loyalty program that recently scored a $12 million Series B from NEA, Andreessen Horowitz, Lightbank, and others. Additional programs will arrive in the future, says Google, including Avis Car Rental, BJ’s Restaurants, Cosi, Hard Rock International, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International, Raley’s and The Body Shop.

Similarly, Google Offers has also now been integrated into Wallet, following integrations into other Google properties like Maps and Google+. Wallet users can store their offers in the app, redeem them at checkout and, later this week, they’ll be able to save other sorts of offers, too, through a new partnership between Google and coupon giant Valpak.

That latter deal will help Google better position Wallet against Apple’s Passbook, which is also getting a major refresh with the launch of iOS 7 this week. Marketers are being given easier tools to add their coupons into Passbook through support for QR code scanning in Passbook. That means advertisers could place scannable coupons in Sunday papers, magazines, and other circulars that could eliminate coupon clipping, instead allowing users to present scannable coupons at checkout. Through Valpak’s coupon database, Google is hoping to make this virtual coupon clipping even easier — users won’t have to scan a QR code, but rather just tap and save, so to speak.

The updated Wallet app also includes an easier way to track in-store, online and mobile purchases in one place through a revamped user interface, Google notes.

Unlike Apple’s Passbook, which is today focused more on coupons, tickets, loyalty cards and, as the name implies, passes, Google Wallet is a more encompassing initiative that includes support for web and mobile payments (like PayPal), as well as point-of-sale payments, and even in-app purchases of physical goods and services. Wallet also powers Google Play paid app downloads and other in-app purchases.

However, the company has struggled to get Wallet right — having scrapped plans to launch an accompanying physical card at point-of-sale, which would have allowed it to route around the problems associated with NFC. Today, Wallet users can pay in-store on one of the 29 different NFC-enabled devices, though the app can at least run on any Android phone or tablet running version 2.3 (Gingerbread) or higher.

The update is now rolling out to U.S. users.