Cellular

Adventures in Mobile Payments

In theory, mobile payment systems are supposed to make your life easier. Instead of fumbling with your wallet, you just bump your smartphone against a terminal and voilà! In reality, though, the experience is far less simple.

I know this because I recently spent a few weeks testing Apple Pay and Google Wallet in the tech-savvy suburbs of New York City. It's been almost a full year since Apple unveiled its app—Google's came out in 2011—and I wanted to see how well the two services work now that there's been time to fix any glitches and bring cashiers up to speed.

It's also a good time to check in because mobile payments are about to get more complicated. Google is soon going to take another crack at mobile payments with a new app called Android Pay, and phone maker Samsung is introducing its own e-wallet with Samsung Pay.

As it turned out, finding a sales staff equipped to handle the newfangled systems was a sleuthing challenge worthy of Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.

You Want to Pay Using What?

The Apple and Google services have distinct logos, but spotting them in a store is a lot like searching for Waldo. Time and again, I found myself asking, “Excuse me [cashier person]. Do you accept Apple Pay or Google Wallet?” Often, they’d look back at me as if I were speaking some exotic foreign language. Sometimes they’d cautiously nod yes, perhaps assuming I was talking about one of those gift-card apps that produce a scannable barcode. When I persisted, I could count on those befuddled looks morphing into repose with the suggestion that I speak to a manager. No thanks.  

They Don't Really Save Time

At first, the tap-and-pay aspect of mobile payments is kind of cool, and, if your phone is already in your hand, I suppose it’s a tad easier than fishing for a card in your wallet.

But neither Apple Pay nor Google Wallet (soon to be succeeded by Android Pay) spare you from some of the rituals credit-card users face at the card reader—even if you set up the phone’s fingerprint scanner for payment authentications. For instance, when I used Apple Pay on my iPhone 6 Plus at Staples, I had to type in my bank PIN, as well as punch through all the amount-approval and cash-back options we’re all too familiar with. Oh, and I still had to wait for my paper receipt.

Also, I placed multiple charge cards on the two apps and both gave me a hard time about selecting the card I wanted. No matter how much I resisted, Apple Pay kept shoving the image of my Amex card ahead of the one for my debit card. At times it felt like I was playing Monkey in the Middle. Every time I made a move for the Chase card, the Amex card kept bouncing in front of it. I eventually “caught” the Chase card and managed to pay the way I wanted to.

They're Not Very 'Portable'

McDonald’s is one of the many retailers that accepts Google Wallet, but I had an interesting experience when I tried to use the app at the drive-through. When I held up my phone and informed the cashier I intended to exercise my Google Wallet rights, he snickered and stepped away from the window. Moments later, he returned with a payment terminal, wires dangling, and said, “Go ahead” with a sarcastic tone. (I believe he might have cursed, too.) Next time, it’s cash and carry.

Watch Your Steps

These apps track your transactions and your whereabouts (via your phone’s GPS) even when you’re not using them, which can lead to some interesting experiences. When I drive past the Rite Aid on my way to work every morning, for example, I can now count on my phone chirping and the store’s Wellness loyalty card appearing in the notifications bar on my LG G3, thanks to Google Wallet. And when my wife buys a book on her Kindle, the Apple Pay app on my iPhone 6 Plus vibrates and shows me the Amex charge. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when a family member buys a book she really enjoys, I’d rather hear about it from her first.  

Please Try Again Later

The big fantasy, of course, is that paying with a cell phone means never having to carry a wallet. But trust me, you’ll want to keep conventional cards in your pocket. Because if your phone’s battery dies, it’s going to take your wallet app with it. No juice, no money. And, as I found out at a forlorn Walgreens in Dobbs Ferry—20 miles north of New York City—a cellular dead zone will render Google Wallet useless. Verizon coverage inside the store was zilch, so the app wouldn’t accept my PIN. My waistline didn’t really need that bag of York Peppermint Patties, anyway.

It would have been a different story if I had brought my iPhone, though. Apple-Pay-compatible iPhones have a special chip called a “secure element” that allows the device to authorize a limited number of transactions when data connections to cloud-based servers aren’t available. Samsung Galaxy S 6 models, and the just-announced Samsung Note5, will have a similar setup for the new Samsung Pay system the phone maker plans to launch in September.

Bottom Line

The refinements that are bound to come as more people embrace Apple Pay and Google Wallet should make the issues I faced less common, and they might disappear one day. But if Apple and Google really want to win me over, they’ll develop an app that will help me fill my wallet instead of emptying it.

In the meantime, the awkward rituals required for using their payment systems have only bolstered my appreciation for the simplicity and certainty of swiping a real card through a card reader. 

Copyright © 2005-2015 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.