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The day I left my wallet

It was supposed to be the perfect father/daughter day. Beautiful California sunshine, school holidays, and we were headed for Waterworld. After an hour drive, just as we pull into the parking lot to pay for parking, I realized I forgot to bring my wallet. Unfortunately not the first time I’ve done this, and normally a very frustrating experience causing me to be angry at myself – but luckily I’m a payments/tech geek and figured ‘Hey, I have Samsung Pay. No worries’. There was no way I was driving back, so to make this a good day, Samsung Pay would just simply have to do.

I had my doubts of course. I’ve had experiences where Samsung Pay flat out did not work, and I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable experiences with people behind me when I’ve been fumbling with the finger print reader, feeling the increasing annoyed expressions in my surroundings. But my day with only Samsung Pay gave me a good insight into the state of mobile wallets in general.

1. Design matters

Samsung Pay does really work most places (well, the machine at Waterworld that collects payments for lockers has a magnetic stripe inside the machine, so no, that did not work and I had to use the car as a locker which was inconvenient but ended up saving me $12, so….), but there are inherent flaws in the Samsung Galaxy S6 implementation. First, the finger print reader is less than stellar, and it may take several attempts for it to work. Second, it takes what seems like forever to retry a finger print read. In reality probably only 3-5 seconds, but there is no reason it should not be instant to retry.  This IS a problem, as delays lead to uncomfortable feelings about causing them, and that will kill adoption. The S8 has the fingerprint reader on the back side of the phone, which also has led to frustrations among users.

In comparison, I have used Apple Pay a lot, and the finger print reading nearly always works at the first try, and retry can be done in less than a second. I.e. my level of comfort is significantly higher. This matters.

2. Infrastructure needs to support the experience

I am glad I had my Samsung phone as I know at least it theoretically works everywhere. While Apple Pay does work nearly flawlessly – and is starting to be more convenient than pulling out my card – the lack of acceptance means simply I would never leave my house with just my iPhone.

But the mobile payment infrastructure flaws came blatantly obvious when I tried to pay for food at Waterworld. For some reason, the cash register is completely behind a wooden panel. So, in this case, I had to actually hand the phone to the cashier, whereupon I started hearing “That doesn’t work here”, and I reply “Yes, it does. This is not Apple Pay”. After back and forth 3 times, followed by 2 attempts by the cashier who held it too far from the magnetic reader, I went demonstratively behind the panel and held my phone to the reader, causing her face to be red of embarrassment – or possibly anger (and possibly slightly impressed that it did work).

My second attempt was much better when at another concession stand I was buying a slurpie for my daughter (No, not me. Seriously. Don’t touch the stuff. Except maybe a sip). The register was right there, and I got the beep within half a second of holding the phone up, bringing a huge surprised look and a smile to the cashier. I could not help myself and said “Hey, it’s a kind of magic”. Que Freddy Mercury.

The lesson though is that while the phone may work on most readers, unless the reader is close enough for you to reach over and do it, given a general lack of awareness of Samsung Pay, the act of paying is likely to be a painful affair where you either feel you are reaching over inappropriately or you end up in a semi-argument with a cashier that it really, really does work, you just held it wrong. Only the hard core nerdy payment geeks like me will endure such an experience for a second attempt, which means adoption of this may be a while out (possibly to a point where NFC or other more seamless methods are ubiquitous).

3. It needs to better than the present experience

For consumer behavior to change, you need a huge improvement over the existing experience. Taking my card out takes seconds, and generally works flawlessly. Ask yourself – will you feel good about leaving the house and only bringing your phone to pay? Most likely not. And this means mass adoption is not going to be there for some time. When paying with your phone means a) it works everywhere, b) it’s fast and without technical glitches, c) you get a better experience than paying with your card (like not having to sign, which helps for US which does not have chip/pin, AND you get some additional benefits like on the spot discounts etc, etc), only then will there truly be mass adoption. But will we all eventually leave without our wallets and feel good about it? Highly likely.

4. The future is already here

The Singapore VC firm Life.SREDA writes in their Money of the Future report: “Only geeks and early adopters use [Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, etc] frequently, as they are inclined to test new solutions or make themselves fashionable and advanced.” – while I am glad to admit I’m both a geek and early adopter, the Waterworld experience was hardly about me trying to be fashionable and advanced, and certainly, my points above need to be universally addressed for take-up to happen. When addressed, paying with your mobile will be the preferred choice for most.

One need only to go to China (and India) to understand that paying with your phone is now truly the de facto experience. But that is because the Chinese are way ahead in mobile payments infrastructure, and have also created a very good and simple user experience using QR and barcodes (similar to what you can see Starbucks is doing in the US). And this is not one of those “But yeah, it’s China, and it will never happen here” moment. This is not a repeat of the failure of DoCoMo services to go beyond Japan. The changes are fundamental, and they will eventually be everywhere.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this post are mine and do not reflect the views of any clients or companies I am currently working for or have worked for.

Posted in Payments, The Business of Mobile.