My misadventures with Apple Pay

We spill a lot of digital ink on Mobile Payments Today dissecting the problems that plague this industry.

At times, it appears we discuss the same issues over and over again. I’m guilty of this as well in some blog posts. But I view this dilemma in two ways: Firstly, it shows how far the industry is from solving its problems; and secondly, the more we talk about the issue, the better this industry might become at “getting it right,” though I’m not sure what that is supposed to look like any more.

What I do know is that if mobile payments are to become more widespread, everyone in the food chain must do everything possible to eliminate the hiccups consumers experience when using such methods.

Banks, card networks, retailers, point-of-sale device manufacturers, payment processors, merchant acquirers, third-party mobile wallet providers and others must get on the same page with proximity (mostly NFC) mobile payments, because for all this talk about seamless, seamless, seamless, a good chunk of mobile-payment transactions at the point of sale are anything but, and it’s frustrating.

The extra work it takes for consumers to conduct an EMV transaction should open the door to more proximity mobile payments. But if both methods are cumbersome, why make the switch from one (cards) to the other (mobile)? What’s the benefit to me?

Last weekend, I faced two different situations with Apple Pay that made me more inclined to use plastic in the future. Let me go in chronological order so that you can understand my frustration after back-to-back bad experiences.

The first fumble happened at Whole Foods, and it’s one that others who write about this industry have chronicled before.

I have my debit card linked to Apple Pay. Yes, that’s a little risky and probably not recommended, but I try to avoid using credit. The problem with using a debit card linked to Apple Pay is that you never know when you’ll need to enter your PIN on the POS keypad to complete your transaction.

If I still have to interact with the POS when I use something like Apple Pay, then what’s the point of mobile payments?

I’ve never had that problem at Panera. There, the issue is that I still must present my loyalty card separately from an Apple Pay tap. That’s another other issue I won’t get into here.

Anyway, after my “frictionful” visit to Whole Foods, I walked a minute down the block to Trader Joe’s, which has accepted Apple Pay for close to a year. But after my visit to Whole Foods, I decided not to use Apple Pay at Trader Joe’s. The plastic version of my debit card worked just fine.

It was after I finished my food shopping that I ran into the biggest Apple Pay snafu I’ve experienced since I started using it.

I depend on public transportation in Chicago because owning a car here brings with it too much stress, especially during the winter. So, I use a combination of the Chicago Transit Authority and Lyft/Uber to get around the city.

The great thing about the CTA is that it’s one of the few systems in the U.S. that accepts open-loop contactless payment cards and mobile wallets like Apple Pay. Or, I should say, it’s a great thing until it doesn’t work.

I usually use the CTA’s Ventra card to pay transit fares. I like to keep transit seperate from my everyday spend. And there’s another reason: No one has figured how to make bus and train transfer payments work with mobile wallets.

The CTA charges riders 25 cents per transfer, but it charges you the full fare ($2.25) if you use a mobile wallet. That’s just one more thing that needs to be worked out.

Anyway, I knew my Ventra balance was low when I approached the Purple Line station in Evanston to make the short three-stop trip back into Chicago. So, I figured I would just use Apple Pay to pay my fare. But when I arrived at the turnstile, my troubles started.

The reader at the first turnstile I tried didn’t want to communicate with my phone. Or was it the other way around? I really had no way to know, and this was not the first time I had used Apple Pay on the CTA. It’s worked fine in the past.

After a couple of attempts, I decided to try a second turnstile. The same thing happened.

As you can imagine, my frustration at this point was growing. Fortunately, it was Saturday, and I wasn’t in a rush to get back home. But what if I had to travel downtown everyday and this situation happened during rush hour? I’m sure the commuters behind me would have a few choice words to send my way.

After my failed second attempt, I simply reloaded my card from the Ventra app, tapped the card at the turnstile, and was on my way without further trouble. From a mobile-payments perspective, though, the trip was a disaster.

I know we are still at the beginning stage of mobile payments in the United States. Consumers in countries such as Japan and South Korea are pros at proximity mobile payments. I envy them in many ways because it appears from a distance that everyone in the chain worked together to make mobile payments a smooth experience. This hasn’t happened yet in the U.S.

Whether it eventually will happen is probably one of the biggest questions marks in payments today. As retailers and the card networks continue to scuffle over issues such as interchange, it’s difficult to imagine getting to a state of harmony with mobile payments.

In fact, it seems more likely that things will become even more discordant. We’ve already seen major retailers thumb their nose at the Pays with their own systems (Wal-Mart and CVS) and completely ignore these products.

Get it together, folks!

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