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The Problem with Apple Pay

on: 6/3/2015, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) about this entry

Apple Pay is brilliant. It’s simple, it’s fast, it’s secure, and its percentage of “just works” is as high or higher than a magnetic card reader. Here’s the problem though: there is no social cue for “I’m paying with my iPhone/Watch”.

When you pay with cash, the cashier sees you reach into your wallet, pull out some money, and hand it to them. You don’t ever need to say “I’m paying with cash” because every cashier on the planet knows what you mean when you hold a handful of paper money in their general direction.

Same with a credit card, you never have to say “I’d like to pay with my credit card.” One of two things happens: you either give them your credit card and they know what to do with it, or you are able to swipe the card and step through the checkout on your own on the card reader. There’s no ambiguity.

Not so with Apple Pay. Not only are cashiers poorly trained on how to handle NFC payments (or even whether or not it’s an option, despite the sign on the counter), but there’s no social cue for paying with your phone or watch. On most point of sale systems, the cashier is required to hit a button to enable NFC payment, so even if the reader is on your side of the counter already, you have to say “I’d like to pay with my watch.”1 This inevitably elicits an arched eyebrow as the cashier parses your English and what you could have possibly meant, because unless you are at a pawn shop, watches are not a form of valid currency. To be less confusing you could try “I’d like to use Apple Pay,” which will have slightly better success if the cashier is well-versed in how their NFC payment system works2.

Once you get past the social awkwardness, the system always works great, and still gets smiles from the cashiers and peace of mind that there is one less transaction tied to your credit card number. But for it to truly be the experience we see in Apple’s commercials (which is of course the ideal), one of two things must happen. It either needs to become the defacto payment type, where cashiers only need to be alerted if you do want to pay with cash or a credit card, or payment readers need to always be near the customer, and require no cashier intervention.


  1. So far Whole Foods is the only exception I’ve encountered in my area, where the payment reader is not only within reach but also entirely self-directing. 

  2. Unless you are in the drive-through at McDonald’s in which case the response will be “You want an apple pie?” as they marvel at how you say the word “pie”.