When I was in Singapore a few days ago I went to Starbucks in the conference centre where the Cards Asia and NFC World Asia events were being held, accompanied by senior executive from major international financial services organisation (SEXMIF) to get a coffee. When we got there, I noticed a contactless terminal, proudly advertising that it preferred Citibank cards. We ordered a couple of coffees and the delightful young clerk smiled and cheerfully asked for $8.40 or whatever it was. After a theatrical flourish of my splendid contactless Visa card I triumphantly tapped it against the reader. Nothing. I tapped it again. Nothing. I told the attendant that I wanted to pay with contactless. Ah, he pointed out, you can’t because it’s not a Citibank card. I politely explained that it was a Visa card, and there was a Visa logo prominently displayed on the reader. He went off to get his supervisor.
The super appeared to see the problem. Ah, he pointed out, the terminal isn’t ready. He proceeded to re-key the transaction into another POS terminal (they had three: two for cards, as far as I could see, and one for NETS, the domestic contactless purse.)
Nothing. The terminal still didn’t display the invitation to tap and go, although the blue light was on. He told me to tap the card. I told him that it would be pointless, because the terminal wasn’t in the correct state. He insisted. I tapped. Nothing happened. SEXMIF, who was videoing all of this on his phone, presumably so that he could show his management the future of consumer payments, was having trouble keeping the camera still while laughing at me.
We cancelled the transaction out and tried again. It still didn’t work. I rummaged for my trusty Travelex pre-paid MasterCard and paid by swipe. Remember, I do this so you don’t have to.
Not only was using contactless not quicker than paying with cash, it was not quicker than paying with a cheque. Nor, for the matter, was it quicker than walking across the mall to an ATM, drawing out the cash, walking back and paying with a S$50 bill and getting the change in 5-cent coins. What a joke. It’s almost as if a double-agent from the cash-in-transit (CIT) industry has gone under deep cover and is now working for the banks, sabotaging the deployment of contactless from the very heart of the industry. After all, what consumer is going to try tapping their phone on this terminal after they’ve had these experiences with contactless cards?
The next day, on my own, and refusing to accept that contactless deployment had been damaged beyond repair by the combined actions of the acquirers and merchants, I went into another Starbucks to try again. I asked for a Latte (with an extra shot this time) and then asked if I could pay by contactless. The guy told me I needed a “white card” (I think this is what he said). I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I confidently pointed to the Visa logo on my UK Barclays debit card and, expressing full confidence in the global brand promise that has made Visa what it is today, I prepared to tap. He rekeyed the transaction, and, ta da!, the terminal lit up. I tapped! The light went amber, then green! He handed me a receipt that confirmed an offline EMV no-CVM debit transaction, and I wheeled away in triumph.
But the clerk called me back. He told me that they have to swipe the card, even when the customer has paid by contactless. I was incredulous. But he was insistent. I asked him why. He said that they had to. I told him I was sure that wasn’t the case, but he insisted, and by now my use of contactless had caused a queue to build up. I didn’t want to embarrass him — it’s not his fault — but I was really curious what they needed the swipe for. So I handed over my Travelex MasterCard, and he swiped that. It charged me for the coffee again. I looked at both receipts, astonished. Then I gave him back the Travelex card and had him unwind the transaction, then gave him my debit card and he swiped that, for a reason that wasn’t clear to me. When I got home, I logged in to both accounts to see what had transpired. Nothing had been posted to the Barclays account three days after this, and when I tried to log in to Travelex it said “site down for maintenance”. Oh well.
For reference, this is what should happen in the retail environment if a retailer wants to cut cash handling, speed up serving times and increase the average spend: I ask for a coffee, the guy rings up S$6.40 and the terminal lights up, clearly displaying “6.40” and then I tap it with my card/phone and the light goes green and that’s it done. End of transaction.