Got Sberbank card?

amidst Moscow subway

— I have no cash on me.
 — Got Sberbank?

— Do you accept cards here? 
— No, but you can pay with Sberbank.

— We have technical issue today, can’t accept your card.
 — Can I pay with Sberbank? 
— Sberbank is okay.

— Oh, you got the number printed out, very convenient. Only I can’t get much signal here.
 — I’ll create a hotspot for you.

Those are all my conversations for the past couple of years in Russia: in boutique stores, restaurants, beauty salons, music festivals, even dental clinics, and so on. Sber (or Sberbank) — this kind of Russian slang have been heard a lot locally, and many have said that themselves. There are print-outs with the phone number or card number laying around the hundreds of thousands SMEs’ cashier desks. Not as obvious as in Kenya or in China, but still they are there.

In just a few years Sberbank has transformed itself from the ‘babushka’ bank to a quite innovative one with many things digital. Almost digital bank. In most services. Almost everywhere throughout the country.

This bank invokes a variety of emotions in the hearts of Russian people. But one thing is certain — Sberbank Online has taken a significant place in modern Russia. Sberbank Online is now the largest alternative (to bank cards) payment system in terms of the monthly active users — whopping 40 million people (November 2018).

Let’s mull over the reasons for this.

1. Sberbank is the largest bank in Russia.

(and in overall among Central and Eastern European countries)

46% of all deposits, almost 40% of all loans to individuals, 110 million clients. In one way or another, by expert estimations Sberbank controls about 70% of all payments in the country. It is also by far the largest bank card issuer. If one asks ‘Do you have Sberbank card?’, the answer is likely to be ‘Yes, sure’.

2. Its mobile application actually looks like any neobank there is.

PFM and savings goals, deposits, investments, metals, money transfer — by phone number, by card number. Possibility to buy an activation PIN for the game, or purchase a digital gift card, or pay for utilities, taxes or music streaming. Want to chat in the messenger right here? Read Instagram-like stories? Or send a birthday card along with some money gift? No card needed for any of that.

3. Sberbank has been stimulating its clients to download and use their mobile app for years.

Literally forced. The bank branch consultants would take (initiative) smartphones in their hands and install the app, show the functions, teach how to do things they came for by themselves.

Cashiers would refuse to accept payments for utilities the old way with cash over counter, and show how to scan the utility bill’s QR-code right from their app.

The teaching and preaching period was quite successful. People have learned that they do not need to go to the bank, or even website. Just the app in enough for most cases.

4. Mobile phone number as your ID.

This number became the main ID, not the email address or specific user-generated login. Finally, the ID that everyone remembers. That also means that there is no real need in knowing the card number. Phone number is enough.

5. And finally, 900.

900 is the number which every Sberbank client identifies as an official short number for the bank’s text message notifications.

Online stores and services has harnessed the power of Sberbank Online, and learned to adapt its payment scenario to e-commerce. Instead of asking for card data, the online store payment page would ask you for the phone number. And the next thing you know, there is a text message from Sberbank asking to confirm the purchase. As simple as that. No bank card needed, direct withdrawal from the bank account. And some more innovative merchants with iOS or Android apps can even deep-link their apps with Sberbank Online to make the process even better.

All this brought Sberbank Online to its superstar status as the most popular payment system in Russia, being used a lot instead of the card payment. Even sometimes in usual offline stores. But this is the topic I would rather not get myself into.

Anna Kuzmina is the deputy Chief Commercial Officer at Yandex.Money, one of the leading fintech companies of Russian origin, operating both b2c and b2b financial services. Follow Anna on Youtube, Twitter, Medium, Telegram или Яндекс.Дзене.