Contactless payment technology, nearly there (sigh)

I bank with one of the big four banks (are there still four after all those mergers?) and have done so ever since being ejected from the school and packed off to university a l-o-n-g time ago.  And hence I have a couple of debit cards (one for each of my accounts).  Some while ago these were, of course, upgraded to Chip and PIN for my ongoing protection against fraud.

Look for the "contactless" symbol - hard to find

But just recently the cards have been changed again, this time including contactless payment technology.  Now, for my added convenience, I can make small value purchases in some selected outlets just by waving my card near the shop’s card reader and without having to insert my card or PIN.

Looking at the list of retailers supporting this technology I was not that impressed.  Basically it’s fast food outlets which I generally avoid, especially now I’m no longer a commuter for whom an extra minute in a food queue could be a minute less in the mad dash to get the few remaining seats on the otherwise overcrowded train.  But by chance I was in Hemel Hempstead at the weekend with a half-hour to kill waiting for the start of the party that boy #2 was going to, and there in the middle of the main shopping street was Cafe Nero.

Cafe Nero - good for babycinos

Of all the coffee shops, Nero is one of our favourites, and one that I’ve got a loyalty card for.  I think Nero’s were amongst the first to introduce “Babycino” drinks for kids – frothed up milk at a knock-down price.  Costa beat them to it, and usually add marshmallows, but good value nonetheless.  I ordered, and showed my card to the barista, who asked me to pop it into the card reader.  ”Contactless?” I asked, pointing to the symbol on my card.  ”Yes, just a moment” she replied.  The card reader now indicated it was ready to receive my card, so I waved it and….. Nothing! It didn’t work.

Now normally I’m an optimist when it comes to technology, but also a realist who understands that introducing new things is fraught with failures and disappointments.  So I put the card away and paid with cash.  What was wrong?  Did I use the card wrongly?  Did the Barista hit the wrong key?  Maybe the card had to be validated.

Fortunately we still kept the (paper) leaflet at home that came with the new card.  So I searched through it and finally found the place where it said that you cannot make a contactless payment until you’ve first made a normal chip and PIN payment.  And then the penny dropped – the “Doh!” moment.  These cards are sent out through the post, and if they worked without having to be activated , goodness only knows how many coffees and sandwiches would be purchased by Royal Mail employees inadvertently brushing past card readers whilst delivering the mail.

Why hadn’t I thought of that sooner, before trying to use the card?  I used to notice things like that, to be able to think through the end to end process and look for the loopholes that could be exploited.  At least I realised before calling them up and complaining.

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