Mass Transit Likely To Break The Contactless Payment Logjam

Written by Frank Hayes
October 5th, 2010

For years, contactless payment has been on an endless death spiral, with consumers often unaware that they even have a contactless card in their pocket, never mind what to do with it. And those that managed to use the card discovered that the convenience and speed benefits promised weren’t there, when compared with familiar mag-stripe transactions.

Frustrating for contactless proponents, the more trials that happened, the further in the hole they found themselves. Even retail participants were often resistant, having to be have been bribed into doing the trial at all. But a pair of recent mass transit uses of contactless—an existing trial in New York City and an imminent changeover in Chicago—have a surprisingly good shot at finally giving contactless payment a real shot at success.

There are many reasons why these two efforts could easily be received very differently than traditional retail trials. But the key difference is that the very nature of mass transit—the subway system for both cities—actually delivers the convenience and speed improvements that no retail trial could.

Even better, we’re not suggesting that contactless would only work for mass transit. Once those huge cities make contactless work underground, the millions of consumers who have used it to ride will know they have it, and will be open to trying it at above-ground merchants.

The contactless payment marketing positioning was regrettable. Instead of arguing that contactless is faster and easier than mag-stripe—in retail, it’s generally not—the argument should have been that’s better in mass transit and other areas and it’s just as fast and easy as magstripe, so why not use contactless for everything? The transit trials give consumers a chance to see contactless from the opposite perspective. Once they’ve discovered a powerful use for it, they’ll be open to other things.

After all, the problem isn’t that retailers and customers hate contactless. The problem is that there’s no compelling reason to use it—or even to be aware of it. Customers have the cards because that’s what the payment card company sent—often without any explanation that the new credit or debit card can be used for contactless payments.

Meanwhile, retailers have installed contactless-capable card readers, but cashiers routinely instruct customers to swipe and often don’t even know how to handle a contactless card. (A week ago at a large chain drugstore, it was a big event for the cashiers when I pulled out a card to make a contactless payment. One of the cashiers had never seen that kind of transaction before.)


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