Matt Howe: The Future is Digital

The future is digital

It’s fair to say that so far, 2020 is a far cry from the year that many of us envisioned. I still find the disruption to our daily lives fascinating – to have gone from a world of bustling activity to a completely new normal in as little as four months still seems surreal. 

Personally, the distancing measures in place have given me the chance to spend more time with my family, travel less and reconsider what is most important in life. I know that for many of my colleagues at Blackhawk Network, it’s not been the most straightforward of times, so I am extremely proud of the way in which we’ve come together as one team to make it through. 

As far as business goes, I’m pleased to see that brick and mortar sales are returning to expected levels. It’s clear that despite the world having been uprooted, our industry lifeblood – the customers – still needed us in so many ways. 

Gifting occasions never stopped. Lockdown didn’t do away with birthdays and anniversaries. In fact, it created an entirely new reason to gift – the ‘just because’ or the ‘I’m thinking of you’ occasions. People not being able to see one another didn’t mean that they stopped caring. They simply adapted.  

And so did we. As a business and a wider industry, we had to adapt our products, accelerate our go-to-market strategies and find new ways to maintain our relevance.  Consumers had new wants and needs that we had to answer; or face the consequences of getting left behind. 

The answer in this extraordinary time of need was, of course, digital. 

Many companies experienced exponential online growth from the demand of families looking for at-home entertainment solutions or essential shopping. Who isn’t now on a first-name basis with their postie or local delivery driver? 

At Blackhawk Network we hold a variety of products that we were able to pivot our focus towards. Digital reward platforms such as our Select or One4all Digital gift card propositions, our business and consumer eCommerce sites and the rapid development of new branded payment methods like our Virtual Prepaid Cards. 

The development of our digital channel, Cashstar, has been notable. With elevated demand on our partners, who were not fully equipped to scale up their existing solutions, our Cashstar team were able to step in to support. As a result, we’re working with one of our partners to provide free school meals vouchers and have already processed a value of around £90m, benefitting recipients UK-wide (with more to follow this summer thanks to the Marcus Rashford factor!). 

I must say that I am beyond proud of the way in which our industry has gone above and beyond in supporting worthy causes, wherever the opportunity has arisen. From Eden Red’s national roll out of free school meals vouchers, to the emergency fund established for thousands of front-line staff by Sodexo. The sheer number of charities that have been aided with the fulfilment of their grant schemes has been immense.  

During the peak of the crisis, we saw reports that many organisations had received their usual annual application volume within weeks and simply didn’t have a sustainable method to distribute relief efficiently. We are proud that Blackhawk Network has been able to offer cost-effective and instant solutions to help multiple charities provide grants to hundreds of additional beneficiaries. It’s been an honour to have received messages of thanks from the charities and their recipients alike. 

In other areas, those of us running cycle to work schemes have seen significant growth in the past few weeks, following government advice to get back on two wheels. We’re ecstatic to report that Cyclescheme has seen a 472% rise in employer registrations YoY and our sales are up by 128% for the four weeks into mid-June. This contributes substantially towards our core aim of facilitating a higher percentage of the UK workforce to enjoy cycling, with the desirable benefits of improved mental and physical health. 

So, looking to the future. This new world, which we are just beginning to understand, will undoubtedly continue to evolve rapidly. Our focus will be to stay ahead of the curve and continue to drive the digital evolution that has begun. 

Single retailers have been hit hard (not just by Covid-19) and it’s possible that we’ll sadly see many more brands disappear from our high street in the coming months. As a result, I see a big future in multi-retailer solutions, providing not only choice, but stability and reassurance for reward and incentive recipients.  

At Blackhawk Network, we are currently exploring further digitisation of our products, so that their usage encompasses an increase in (safe) retail footfall. As an industry, we face an immense challenge: to change the mindset of the consumer, so that they see the value in returning to the physical experience, whilst utilising emerging payment methods that promote an efficient, easy and hygienic redemption.   

In summary: Assume this ‘thing’ is here to stay. Demand will continue. Embrace the digital age. 


Matt Howe, Managing Director of Blackhawk Network Europe, has been at the forefront of product innovation in the gift card space for 14 years. He was responsible for one of the UK's largest gift card programmes, which drove significant sales growth for the organisation.

Matt's knowledge and influence play a pivotal role in shaping the future of global branded payments across Europe, where Blackhawk Network’s prepaid products, technologies and networks continue to connect brands and businesses in 26 different countries.