Wireless Credit Card Swiping a Growing Practice

Posted on October 19, 2005 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, CALIF. – When Michelle Dubé, a golf instructor in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., finishes up a lesson, she whips out her BlackBerry wireless device – to schedule the next appointment, sure, but also to swipe the student's credit card for payment right there on the driving range. It takes only a few seconds, and it saves Dubé a trip to the bank. Plus, her clients like it. "They're just surprised – they're like, 'Wow, you're a techno-wizard,"' she said.

Plumbers, limousine drivers, flea market proprietors and merchants of all size and stripe are beginning to take credit and debit cards in odd places, often using nothing more than an ordinary cell phone. Now that wireless networks span the globe and devices that tap into them are cheap and reliable, expectations for the technology are running high. Already, some U.S. restaurants are installing wireless systems that let waiters swipe your credit card tableside – a practice that is widespread in Europe, as are taxis that accept credit cards in the car. A day could soon come when a clerk at a large department store will ask you in the aisle if you would like to check out there. How about a shopping cart at the grocery store with a built-in scanner and card reader?

"It's a whole new world that's opening," said Doug Byerley, a senior vice president at First Data Corp., the largest U.S. card processor, "and it's all being brought about because of wireless communications." Wireless credit card acceptance is not new. But within the last year or two, as wireless companies have improved their networks and hand-held devices have come down in price, the technology has started to look like an attractive alternative to dial-up payment machines.

Retailers of all size have found that customers tend to spend more money when they are not limited by the amount of cash in their wallets. Greg Crance, who sells hot dogs from a boat in the Delaware River to tourists who raft and canoe there in the summer, said that revenues had risen since he bought a cell phone that accepts credit cards five years ago. He worries less about employee theft because his system notifies him of all card sales and gives him a daily total. Security is not a concern because the wireless devices convey account information with the same heavy level of encryption as plugged-in terminals, if not more. For merchants who normally phone in customers' credit card numbers for approval, there are price breaks: banks charge retailers a lower rate when the actual card is swiped and the account information is conveyed electronically. "The average cost per merchant on a monthly basis is $20 to $30, which in most cases is less than the cost of a phone line," said Paul Rasori, vice president for marketing at Verifone, a terminal maker based in San Jose, Calif. For small merchants, a cell phone equipped with card- acceptance software can cost as little as $200 or $250, which can often be recouped through higher sales volumes or lower card-acceptance fees. "If you run a sandwich shop in downtown New York and you have a two-hour period during the day where all your business happens, it matters to you if it takes 30 seconds for a dial-up credit card transaction, and it's important to you that wireless can do it in two seconds," Rasori said. For larger retailers, which are still heavily wedded to elaborate dial-up systems, the shift to wireless will take longer, but many in the industry view it as inevitable. Some retailers are experimenting with hand-helds as a way to make sure that people waiting in long lines for a cashier do not give up and abandon their merchandise.

"If you're buying a couple of dresses, a retail store wants the ability to walk up to you at that time, read the tags on the clothing items and create a sale right there," said O.B. Rawls, president of the North America region for Hypercom, a company based in Phoenix that sells payment card terminals and technology. "In a wireless mode, you can take advantage of impulse buying." Dave Hogan of the National Retail Federation, a trade group, said members were studying the costs and benefits of upgrading to wireless checkout technology, but that such conversions would take time. Many retailers updated their payment systems right before 2000, when wireless was not that prevalent, he said, and it usually takes seven-to-10 years for a company to revisit such decisions. "The name of the game today is speed," said Niki Manby, vice president for market and technology innovation at Visa U.S.A. "The name of the game tomorrow is going to be all these value-added experiences that merchants want to offer to their customers." Not all companies with mobile employees are convinced. Previous generations of mobile terminals had a reputation for losing signal connections and breaking. Domino's, the U.S. pizza delivery chain, has experimented with wireless terminals but has so far rejected them. "We found in the early tests it was hard for drivers to drive if they had these things on their belts," said Tim McIntyre, a Domino's spokesman. "In the course of working in a car and a pizza store, some of these things weren't as durable as they needed to be, and once they were manufactured to be durable enough, they were no longer cost- effective." Domino's does accept credit cards by telephone and gives customers receipts to sign at their front door, "but we haven't reached the point where we just walk up and you just swipe your card," McIntyre said.

Still, even some smaller businesses are carefully mapping a future that leans on wireless payments. Kerri Evans, who runs a mobile dog-grooming business in Mountain View, Calif., has hired a technology consultant to set up a BlackBerry-based system that will both track appointments and handle card payments; she hopes to get her four groomers geared up within six months. "Because I'm based in Silicon Valley, I definitely want people to think I'm technology-forward," Evans said. "And wireless credit cards are coming."

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