In the mid-2000s, after setting up a new checking account following a move, I received a debit card that, in addition to the magnetic stripe, had contactless functionality. I remember thinking how "cool" this feature would be, not having to swipe the magnetic stripe but simply tapping the card on the point-of-sale (POS) terminal. However, I quickly became disappointed, as I couldn't use the tap functionality in most places that I shopped. In the few places that did allow for taps, I don't recall the tap ever working properly. After a few months, I never attempted to tap it again and reverted to the traditional swipe.
Fast forward to 2017, and contactless card usage is surging in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada while remaining all but nonexistent in the United States. In November 2016, contactless cards accounted for nearly 25 percent of all card payments in the United Kingdom, up from 11 percent since November 2015. In Australia, Visa reported that 75 percent of face-to-face transactions over their network happen via their contactless solution. And in Canada, 99 percent of Mastercard's consumer credit cards are contactless-enabled. A 2016 report found that Canadian consumers were frustrated by merchants that didn't accept contactless payments. All of these countries have also gone through a migration of their payments cards to EMV chip cards. Did the United States miss a great opportunity when chip cards replaced the magnetic-stripe-only payment cards?
Interestingly, in these markets where contactless card adoption rates are surging, contactless cards are leading the contactless payment push ahead of mobile payments. In the United States, we are heading in the opposite direction, with mobile contactless attempting, and struggling, to get traction. No doubt, mobile is the more challenging environment, with a variety of form factors (iPhone, GalaxyS7, Pixel, and more), different ways that the form factor can interact with the POS terminal (such as near-field communication, magnetic source transmission, and barcode), and a variety of different wallets compatible with the different form factors. With a contactless card, you get one form factor—a card—and one method of contactless interaction. (Multiple-interface cards can still be swiped or dipped at the POS.)
I am convinced that the investments made in mobile contactless to this point are one of several factors holding up this country's transition to a contactless card environment. Consumers are confused by the experience and merchants and issuers are struggling with the wide range of options to consider, such as which wallets to enable and which technologies to support. Contactless cards have the ability to create a ubiquitous experience for both consumers and merchants. And this writer believes that a payment experience can't get any easier than a tap of the card.
It's hard for me to believe that it has been 20 years since I received my keychain Speedpass fob. I have positive memories of the simple and seamless transactions that I experienced when purchasing gas by touching the contactless fob to the gas pump reader. Unfortunately, I moved to a location with very few stations that accepted my fob. I always wished that I could have a similar experience for other purchases. Contactless cards allow for that and in a much easier and simpler fashion than my mobile phone allows. So can we get on with contactless cards? I am ready to tap and pay everywhere. Are you?
By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed