Living with credit

Surviving on mobile wallets, Part 2: Apple Pay

Yasmin Ghahremani

In the second of a two-part blog series, Managing Editor Yasmin Ghahremani tries to make it through a week in Austin, Texas, making all of her purchases using only Apple Pay, the mobile wallet that works with iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

In Part 1, senior reporter Fred O. Williams tested Google Wallet for a week. 

First impressions
I’m pretty sure I’m not going to win this showdown purely on the relatively small number of locations that accept Apple Pay. But I feel confident that I will find enough to survive the week and will beat my opponent on the “congeniality” portion of the contest.

Apple Pay wooed me with its Touch ID verification method (no password needed to unlock the phone or make a transaction), the fact that merchants never see your actual credit card number (instead, a device-specific number is created for each card) and EMV-style transaction security (a one-time verification code is created for every transaction, meaning that even if a thief gets hold of it, he can’t use it again).

Surviving on mobile wallets -- Part 2, Apple Pay

Apple also promises not to track your purchases. I swore off loyalty cards long ago and am not handing my purchase details to anyone else I don’t have to. Score another point for Apple Pay.

With that in mind, I set up the wallet. Adding the credit card that’s already on file with iTunes is a breeze, but I hit snags with two other cards. One can’t be verified because the issuer has an old phone number for me (Apple sends it the last four digits of my iPhone during the authorization process).

The other is a Chase MasterCard. Chase is an official credit card partner with Apple Pay but I get a message saying only Chase Visas work with the system at this time.

Never mind. I’ll make do with my default Citi MasterCard.

First stop: Walgreens, one of Apple’s official retail partners. First I have to transfer an ongoing prescription from CVS to Walgreens because CVS won’t take Apple Pay. In fact, the drugstore chain turned off all NFC capability nationwide because it wants to join a non-NFC mobile wallet effort backed by major retail chains that’s due to launch next year.

Once my prescription is switched over to Walgreens, paying is a delight. I don’t even have to open Apple Pay. It pops up on the screen when I put the phone near the NFC terminal. I use my thumbprint to verify it’s indeed me and authorize the payment. Within seconds it’s all over. I won’t be going back to CVS.

Getting fed
My search for sustenance is littered with befuddled cashiers and broken NFC terminals. A lunch payment at McDonald’s — an Apple Pay partner — goes off without a hitch. Same for Firehouse Subs, another partner.

But at most places, the clerks’ faces go blank when I ask to pay with my phone. Self-service payment terminals seem to present a particular problem. As awkward as it is, the McDonald’s solution of having an employee pass a plugged-in terminal out the window seems like the best of the setups. At Taco Cabana, an NFC panel mounted on the outside wall where customers can reach it appears more convenient. But the guy at the window expresses doubt, explaining that customers are always hitting their car mirrors on it. I try anyway and am predictably foiled, apparently by the world’s clumsy drivers.

It’s a similar situation when I go inside a Jack In The Box. The cashier hesitates when I ask about the NFC panel on the customer side of the counter. “I think it’s broken,” he says. “I’ve never seen anyone use it.” Indeed, it is as functional as a brick for buying my Diet Coke.

At Subway, the fact that the restaurant is an official partner with Apple Pay is news to the kid who makes my Teriyaki chicken sub. The card reader behind the counter doesn’t look like other NFC readers, either, so I’m beginning to fear this will be yet another fail. But the sandwich maker is game, telling me he’s seen it work with other phones. Within seconds, I am high-fiving him. Success!

Apple PayEager for a home-cooked meal, I head to the only participating grocery store in my area, Whole Foods, aka, Whole Paycheck, which I later find has managed to defy its popular nickname through a payment error. I stock up on pricey organic chicken and brown rice and the cashier seems to understand how Apple Pay works, but while checking out, my transaction is declined. I fret that Citi is suspicious of fraudulent activity since it knows I’m a Trader Joe’s gal.

But the cashier summons a supervisor and with a few taps on the register, they tell me the payment has gone through. I don’t bother to check until a few days later, when I find that I have two declined transactions from the store on my account. Thank you, Whole Foods!

In search of a dining establishment that doesn’t have fluorescent lighting, I try Open Table. You’re supposed to be able to not only make a reservation through the Open Table app, but also pay within the app for your meal using Apple Pay. In reality, it’s a different story.

I dine with a friend on dumplings and chicken satay at Kona Grill, but the waiter doesn’t know anything about paying through Open Table. He brings the manager around, who apologizes and says he would love to hear more about Apple Pay, but any changes in payment technologies have to go through corporate. My friend pays.

I am not going to starve this week, but eating is becoming a chore.

Fueling up
Apple Pay has two official gas station partners — Chevron and Texaco — an embarrassment of riches. This is where I will really show up my poor Google Wallet rival, I think. I’m almost ready to feel sorry for him.

My sympathies are misplaced, however. I try two Chevrons and neither has any kind of NFC reader. I visit a Texaco, but unfortunately it is attached to a 7-Eleven, another chain that has joined with CVS in refusing NFC payments for now. I call one other Texaco that looks from Google Street View to not include a 7-Eleven. The voice at the other end tells me they don’t take Apple Pay.

Desperate to try to cover this essential base, I try a Valero station. It’s listed in the MasterCard Nearby app as accepting PayPass, and in fact, every pump has an NFC reader. I tap one with my phone and Apple Pay swings into action, but then a message on the pump tells me to see the cashier inside. Back and forth I go from my car to the shop, with the station’s personnel earnestly try to help, but we eventually give up. Good thing I started this week with a full tank.

Among Apple’s short list of payment partners are a number of clothing retailers, but none of them interest me much except for Macy’s. The cashier is helpful and cheery as she rings up a necklace at the jewelry counter. That was easy.

What about returns? I go back to her 20 minutes later and say I’ve changed my mind. Within seconds the charges are removed, making this one of the easiest transactions of the week.

Chains are all well and good, but I don’t have high hopes for independent shops. I scour the MasterCard Nearby app and find one place, the Growler Room, that isn’t too far. The beer specialty shop is not exactly at the top of my list of regular shopping venues, but it’s worth a shot.

I choose a $1 Mason jar and the salesman rings me up, saying he’s seen lots of people paying with phones, including iPhones. But when I try, I just keep getting a message to hold the phone closer to the panel.

I reluctantly put the Mason jar back. Mom-and-pop stores could be the death of the mobile wallet push.

I breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the week. Using Apple Pay as an everyday payment tool will have to be a labor of love. I don’t have that kind of love, but Apple’s zealous fan base may just.

Not that I’m swearing off Apple Pay. I hadn’t expected it to be easier than current payment systems — how hard is it to swipe a card?

But I gradually notice that when Apple Pay works, it really is nicer than digging through my purse for my overstuffed wallet. My phone is usually already out and I can pay with a single hand. That’s not a life-changing improvement, but since Apple Pay is here, I’ll continue using it wherever I can.

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