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Adoption lags as EMV deadline looms

Kelly Dilworth

Retailers have less than three weeks to transition to EMV-enabled card payments, but you wouldn’t know it by shopping at most U.S. retailers.

I know, because it’s only a small exaggeration to say I’ve shopped at most U.S. retailers in the past week. I just moved across the country recently, and replacing left-behind items has landed me in more stores than I visited nearly all of last year.

So far, I’ve only encountered one major retailer that asked me to “dip” my card in an EMV-enabled payment terminal rather than swipe it. Every other store I’ve visited — most of which are nationwide chains — let me get away with just quickly swiping my card, even when their payment terminals looked like they were chip-enabled.

Payment terminals that accept chip-enabled cards are supposed to be programmed to reject swiped credit card payments when the terminal detects your card is chipped. Target’s payment terminals, for example, will automatically prompt you to dip your card into a slot at the bottom of the terminal if you try to swipe it. But so far, no other store has forced me to dip my chip, leading me to wonder just how many stores are actually chip-enabled. My husband insists he’s also visited stores that appear to have chip-enabled payment processors, but he swiped his chip-enabled card instead.

According to Detroit Free Press columnist Susan Tompor, some store terminals are equipped with the technology for a chip, but retailers haven’t bothered to turn the chip processors on yet. “Right now, some terminals at stores look like they can accept a chip, but do not have functionality yet,” wrote Tompor.

It’s not clear how many of those payment processors will be up and running by October. According to a June 2015 estimate from Javelin Strategy and Research, the vast majority of retailers — up to 75 percent — won’t make the Oct. 1 deadline.

Beginning Oct. 1, liability for fraud will shift from card-issuing banks to retailers that don’t accept chip-enabled payments — making it a much bigger risk for retailers to not accept them. Mom-and-pop stores and other small businesses are especially unlikely to meet the deadline. “This will skew very, very heavily to the largest retailers,” said Javelin’s Nick Holland in an interview with PaymentsSource. “The majority of small merchants are not only not ready for EMV, they are not even aware of EMV.”

Many consumers, meanwhile, are also in the dark. As my colleague Sienna Kossman pointed out earlier this summer in writing about her experience trying to use an EMV card, banks have done a poor job educating consumers about the small square chips suddenly appearing on their credit cards. According to a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, a substantial number of cardholders who received chip-enabled credit cards weren’t told what they were for or how to use them. And even when banks did provide information about EMV chips, the information wasn’t always that enlightening, said Kossman after evaluating materials her boyfriend received. “If you didn’t know anything about EMV technology, it wouldn’t be enough,” she wrote.

In my experience, the only reason I knew what to do when Target’s payment processor rejected my attempt to swipe was because I had observed my Canadian relatives make payments. Canada transitioned to chip-enabled cards years ago and, according to my Canadian mother-in-law, it was a much more seamless transition. It took awhile for a larger number of retailers to catch up, she said, but in her memory, she had no trouble learning how to use her new card. She didn’t mention any specific training or consumer education, but I’m willing to bet the education Canadians received was a lot more extensive than what we in the U.S. have enjoyed so far.

According to the payment company First Data, one of the biggest problems Canadians encountered while transitioning to chip-and-PIN was simply that they forgot to take their cards out of the machines when they were done with a transaction. “The impact was so significant that terminal prompts were changed to remind consumers to remove their cards,” wrote First Data in a 2012 white paper. “Consumers also needed to be reminded by merchants to leave their cards in the card readers during the entire transaction.”

I’m hoping that as more retailers in the U.S. transition to EMV, cashiers will be well-equipped to help U.S. customers figure out how to use their new cards. But so far, retailers aren’t showing much interest in chip-enabled cards in the first place, making a smooth transition to chip-enabled payments seem less likely.

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