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Contactless Cards Proving To Be More Paymentless Than Contactless

Written by Evan Schuman
February 22nd, 2008

Contactless cards—which have been pushing accelerated checkout as both a consumer and retail benefit—are running into isolated problems with both.

Even though banks have been sending contactless cards to many consumers as replacement cards, a surprisingly large number of those consumers don’t even realize the cards in their wallets are contactless, which explains why relatively few consumers are using the contactless POS devices at their local retailers.

I’ve been trying to disprove these concerns and have been failing miserably. Taking some cabs in New York City this month, I was thrilled to see the contactless devices in the backseat, only to be told by three different cabbies to not use them because customers were complaining about getting double-billed.

Cynically, I thought, maybe the cabbies have some financial incentive to poo-poo the wireless cards.

This week, visiting three different grocery chains in New Jersey, tried unsuccessfully to use my contactless card there. The first time, a cashier looked at me as I asked about using my contactless card.

"It never works," she said. In what way? "It will take the card and then tell you that the card’s been declined. But if you then slide it (magstripe scan), it will instantly go through." Showing kinship with Iowans, I tried it. Sure enough, it errored in the exact way the cashier had described.

I deliberately tried the same effort at two other chains, discovering the same problem, with cashiers and managers telling me that it’s common.

That said, I was able to find one fastfood chain whose POS did accept my contactless card.

The point is not that contactless payment doesn’t work well. Clearly, it works well enough in plenty of locations. But that contactless has a much bigger foe than antennae-equipped cyberthieves or malfunctioning POS interfaces: apathy.

The way these cards have been marketed and distributed is, at our most kind, lethargic. They’re being sent with tiny declarations, the size and tone of a legal boilerplate announcing some privacy policy change.

In the field, what kind of spotchecking of the equipment is happening? Are contactless backers not the least bit curious why the usage rates are so low? Are they concluding that the U.S. public doesn’t want it, when the devices were never given a realistic chance?

Contactless is supposed to be effortless for the consumer, not for the banks and retailers trying to make a go of it. As the Bard would have said, probably when his contactless card proved to be more paymentless than contactless for the fourth time, "The bank doth protests too little, methinks."


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