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These charts show bitcoin may be turning into a real currency

People watch airplanes land during unseasonably warm weather at Reagan National Airport in Washington
Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Bitcoin can get you airborne.
By Joon Ian Wong
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When bitcoin first hit the mainstream a few years ago, it was believed it could replace cash and credit cards as a way to pay for things. But its extreme price swings, and the fiddliness of a bitcoin transaction, meant that idea fell to the wayside. Bitcoin became more suited to the speculators who day-traded it. But new data suggests that bitcoin payments are gaining traction, as its volatility has fallen and its value has rocketed.

One set of data comes from BitPay, a payment processor that helps merchants accept bitcoin payments. It broke funding records early on as investors rushed to capitalize on bitcoin payments. It has since been eclipsed by other firms that offer bitcoin trading or storage. But BitPay’s data speaks for itself:

The rise in payment volume is more pronounced when shown in dollar terms, because bitcoin’s price has risen over time. Bitcoin’s now trading close to all-time highs, at $1,235.

The more valuable bitcoin has become, the more people are using it to buy stuff.  ”We have definitely seen a ‘wealth effect’ pattern when the bitcoin price increases,” says James Walpole, BitPay’s marketing manager. In other words, if you already owned bitcoin and it rose in value, selling some bitcoin would give you more dollars to spend.

What are people spending bitcoins on? Walpole says about a third of BitPay’s transactions are going to prepaid services like Neteller, Skrill, and BitPay’s prepaid Visa card. Some 21% are going to gaming platforms like Steam. Fifteen percent of transactions go to digital services like domain-name registrations.

The bitcoin “wealth effect” is also evident in the buying patterns of customers at CheapAir, which sells plane tickets, hotel reservations and car rentals online. CheapAir was one of the earliest merchants to accept bitcoin payments in November 2013, and founder Jeff Klee says his bitcoin customers are now feeling flush. “With bitcoin we tend to generate more sales in premium cabins like business class or first class,” he says. “Certainly the average spend for the bitcoin customer is higher than a non-bitcoin customer.”

CheapAir’s bitcoin payments have risen sharply over the last year and a half—a time when bitcoin’s price has risen sixfold. Klee won’t share payment volume numbers, but he says CheapAir will have processed over $15 million in bitcoin payments this month, since his firm began accepting the cryptocurrency.

CheapAir’s bitcoin customers tend to be from outside the US, Klee says, which may also hint at why they prefer the cryptocurrency. Credit cards issued in some countries are often automatically flagged by merchants or payment processors to be high fraud risks, and prevented from completing a purchase, Klee says. ”Legitimate buyers are disadvantaged,” he says. A bona fide customer could get around that by paying in bitcoin.

But if bitcoin payment volumes only rise when the price rises, this suggests only existing bitcoin holders are spending their new wealth. People who bought bitcoin later, at higher prices, would have no reason to spend their coins.

BitPay’s Walpole says that his firm has seen volumes rise even when prices were low. He suggests that higher payment volumes are driven by bitcoin’s improving fundamentals. “Bitcoin [is being used] as a store of value, as a currency hedge, and as a payment method for economies without widespread credit card or banking access,” he says.

If Walpole is right, bitcoin holders (or hodlers, as bitcoin slang has it) are becoming more willing to part with their digital cash.

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