Every other day, it seems, someone has announced a mobile payments app or joined a mobile commerce consortium. We've seen a surge of such announcements in the last year, but I remember writing about a similar mobile payments wave a decade ago. Yet very little has changed in practice in day-to-day payments.
So I was surprised last weekend when I went into the Nordstrom Rack chain clothing store and was approached while waiting in line by a roving clerk equipped with a portable payment terminal -- finally, a slice of reality amid the hype. These units typically fall into two camps: either a heavy, ungainly contraption put out by a cash register manufacturer or the special sled-equipped iPod Touches at the Apple Store. This clerk had one of the latter. We chatted about the device, and he mentioned the chain was in the process of ripping out all of its cash registers, to be replaced with the iPod Touch-based mobile terminals.
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Nordstrom Rack is hardly alone; it's following an industry trend of dumping the aisles of cash registers seen in stores for decades. By 2015, the traditional cash register may be gone from whole swaths of the market, relegated to grocery stores where the sheer volume of items per basket requires a table to set them on. I suspect many small stores will keep their counters but dump the large cash register in favor of the mobile payment terminal, one that very likely will have an iPod Touch at the core.
The use of a sled around the iPod Touch means that the clerks can swipe credit and debit cards -- no need to worry about proprietary technologies such as Square's or haphazardly adopted advances such as near-field communications (NFC). Plus, if those other payment methods get traction, a merchant need just replace the sled with a new one that supports the technology -- much cheaper than replacing today's point-of-sales terminals.
Nordstrom Rack had small tables throughout the store where the clerk brought mobile payers. The tables had two chief functions: hold the bags for the purchased goods and provide a perch for a tiny receipt printer. The printer didn't use Apple's AirPrint, though that no doubt will come. Instead, it has a QRC sticker the clerk scanned to tell his mobile terminal what printer to send the receipt to over the network. Printing was an option, but the preferred receipt was an emailed copy on a customer's smartphone. That way, the store could use it in lieu of paper to verify a purchase when the customer left the store.
If this sounds like the way the Apple Store does business, it is. What surprised me is how quickly that approach is becoming mainstream, while the larger payments industry continues to dither around standards at the client end. Apple has its game there, too, with the Passbook service in iOS 6. Passbook is marketed as a convenient way to hold airline, rain, and theater tickets. But it's also meant to be a broad-based mobile wallet for receipts and, at some point, an extension of Apple's payments system in the iTunes Store, which already knows your credit card numbers. (Apple's own Apple Store app and its EasyPay service lead the way, using your iTunes-associated credit card for payment and in-app electronic receipts to show you're not a thief.)