When contactless payments first emerged, I remember thinking what a waste of money the whole thing was. It was heralded as amazing queue-busting technology that would save so much time in fast food and coffee shops. Obviously, I know nothing about fast food, but coffee shops take a lot longer to make proper coffee than I do to type in a PIN. In fact, it just causes cutomers to queue up in the way of other cusomters to wait for their coffees.

But worse than this, my personal experience of contactless bank card acceptance is very poor. Apart from coffee shops, I use my contactless Amex card mainly in my local Tesco. I’ve been doing this for some years now, even though I know it only works about 50% of the time. The staff there are in denial that they have a problem, probably because they see very few Amex cards. When it goes wrong this is what happens. The terminal asks me to tap my card, I tap it, the terminal says OK. The check out person says it did not work and I have to do the whole thing again using Chip and PIN. There is no void receipt to reassure me that the transaction did not succeed. A payment expert colleague tells me the reason it is so bad is that the merchants have rolled out the contactless infrastructure in a very hit and miss way.

In other shops, they claim they accept Amex (the logo is on display), but in fact they only accept Amex chip and PIN, not contactless, despite their acepting Visa and MasterCard contactless. And more often than not, the staff have no idea what they accept. So, once again, the user experience is very poor.

I still meet many people who advise me that contactless is not secure and that I should not use it. Some of these people are the Tesco check out staff serving me. At a coffee shop in the Scottish Borders recently an elderly member of staff had to ask to be shown how to take my contactless payment. She had clearly never seen one before and she jumped backwards about three feet when the terminal beeped acceptance of my Amex card. I was surpised too.

My local independent proper coffee shop accepts Amex contactless, but does not know how to handle receipts. They say, with contactless transactions, their terminal will only issue one receipt, the Merchant Copy. If I want a receipt (say, for expenses), I can have that from them or nothing. A payment expert colleague tells me that this is wrong since they have a duty to store all their Merchant Copy receipts and also a duty to issue customer receipts. Furthermore, when they give out the Merchant Copy receipt it has the full PAN printed on it, which surely breaks PCI DSS rules?

There is no doubt, this customer’s experience of contactless bank cards is a real mess.

It occurs to me that the one time I use my contactless payment cards and it is a genuinely good experience is on Transport for London modes. It just works and there is genuine advantage over any other payment mechanisms (buying an Oyster card, loading value to it, or buying a paper ticket). So, ‘contactless’ was a technology in search of a problem and it has found it.

I am impressed how robust transport ticketing systems are compared to regular mechant teminals. I wonder why non-transport merchants are happy to not take payments properly so much of the time?


  1. Excellent Article – why didn’t EMVCO control the whole roll-out and it might have been successful? It was a big mistake to leave it to commercial competition between the banks.

    I have found that ApplePay (for any amount) with Amex never works at Tesco and in a number of other large instutions whereas the contactless Amex card itself is OK. It is rejected immediately suggesting the terminals are wrongly configured.

    Despite all this, I do believe that contactless/NFC with Smart Phones is the way forward for non-transport merchants, it is just going to take longer.

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