Mobile payments are supposed to be fast, easy and convenient. I knew when I pulled up at a McDonald's drive-through window the other day that the fast food giant's implementation of Apple Pay challenged. I just didn't know challenged it would be.
"I'd like to pay with Apple Pay," I told the smiling employee on the other side of the drive-up window. Her bright smile instantly vanished. But she did her job, lugging out the McDonald's payment terminal and holding it out the window. I then reached out the car window with my phone in my hand to make the Bluetooth connection that would allow my credit card payment to register. The phone made a connection and then instantly lost it, helpfully telling me that I needed to get the device closer to the terminal to maintain the Bluetooth connection. (Bluetooth can easily handle a few feet of distance and has been known to hold its connection from a few dozen feet away. This device must have been set to allow only a very short distance.) When I got the phone close enough to the terminal to re-establish the connection, I had to reach out with my other hand so I could input my fingerprint and seal the deal. By this point, the employee was struggling with the weight and bulk of the terminal, which was wobbling, and I was twisted around in my seat so I could extend both of my hands toward the device. Finally, after what must have been four or five minutes, I gave up.
"Let me just pay cash," I said. "Thank God!" cried the employee, who at last had her smile back.
She told me she gets a couple of requests to use Apple Pay every day, and she dreads it every time.
The interaction was a disaster, though it could have been worse. It wasn't raining.
I would like mobile payment systems to succeed, but implementations like McDonald's could actually undermine its mobile payment efforts. Somewhere along the line, companies seem to have lost interest in product testing. Or at least that seems to be the case with mobile payments. And that failing could lead to a huge setback. After all, mobile payments already have enough going against them. You need to have the right phone, the right software and the right merchant, and the merchant needs to have the right equipment and the right software as well. So many variables make for a delicate balance, but when all of those elements are in place, you'd hope the system would work. As my McDonald's experience shows, that doesn't always happen.
It's not just me, and it's not just McDonald's. A couple of days earlier, Boston Globe writer Scott Kirsner recounted his own mobile-payment frustrations. He surveyed the state of mobile-payment technology (of the upcoming Coin, he cautioned that "once its internal battery runs out, you'll need to buy a new Coin"), touching on Apple Pay but focusing on LoopPay CardCase. When he hit a bunch of retailers that said they accepted the payment, he found only 53% of the transactions going through.
But that wasn't as frustrating as the somewhat grueling setup process that had to be endured before having nearly half of his LoopPay transactions rejected. Kirsner's description of the LoopPay setup process is worth repeating: "First, you download LoopPay's app, create a password, plug a LoopPay accessory into your phone's headphone jack, and swipe in some of your credit cards, debit cards, or even store gift cards. Some take a few tries to successfully swipe. Then, you put your phone in a specially designed case that has a slide-out "virtual credit card" on the back. Then, you charge up the virtual credit card with its own charging cable. Then you link the card with your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. Also takes a few tries." You get the idea.
As a blogger, Kirsner is more likely than the average person to get a helpful response from a vendor when he complains about something, and sure enough, a LoopPay executive reached out. Confident that Kirsner must have been doing it wrong, he asked to accompany him on his next run of payment attempts. And he did have success in a store where Kirsner had earlier failed, though that was overshadowed by what happened in another shop: "I'm not sure I'll ever forget the scene at FroyoWorld in Allston, when the executive, Damien Balsan, tried three different LoopPay devices to purchase a cup of frozen yogurt. When none worked, and as the yogurt sat on a scale getting soft, Balsan asked the shop's co-owner if he could step behind the counter and try a few times from the cashier's side of the register. Still no luck."
The testing that journalists like Kirsner and me are doing is nothing more than going to participating stores and trying out the technology. What the heck kind of testing must the vendors be doing? I see two possibilities: They are doing little to no meaningful testing, which is bad, or they tested their technology and found these problems, but decided to release the product anyway, which is much worse.
The resulting problems are not just embarrassing. This nonsense has segment-killing potential. When a customer is willing to do all of that setup and hunt down a participating location and then finds that the technology often doesn't work, what are the chances that he/she will try again anytime soon? And in the age of social media, their frustrations aren't just whispered in a few ears.
Meanwhile, some unhelpful hype is being generated by marketers that are hitting mobile payments full throttle, not letting reality interfere.
A company called Betabrand has unveiled lined jeans designed to thwart a thief from intercepting contactless payment cards. The jeans actually do provide you some protection when you're walking through a crowded airport or street, but founder Chris Lindland entered the land of hyperbole when he issued a statement saying that the "jeans prevent thieves from stealing your info." Well, no, they don't. When it was pointed out that thieves can just wait for the payment cards to come out of the jeans at the point of sale, Lindland could only say, "Sorry for the confusion from my silly quote."
Jeans aren't the only kind of clothing getting into the payment game. Barclaycard last week trumpeted its contactless payment gloves. Said Mike Saunders, Managing Director of Digital Consumer Payments at Barclaycard: "The 'pay gloves' we're trialing are designed to let shoppers 'tap, pay and go' even when their hands are full of shopping." Quick question: If both hands are full, how the heck are they tapping?
Someone sent me last week a pair of mobile phone gloves, designed to allow electrical impulses to get through so touchscreens can be used without removing the gloves. The gloves were warm and comfortable, but I had to click three or four times for the phone to register anything. And when it came to using Apple Pay, I had to take a glove off so my phone could read my fingerprint.
Again I have to ask, "Who is testing this stuff?" Much more of this sort of thing, and the proponents of mobile payments will kill it off.
Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.