Apple Pay has the potential to finally bring mobile device payments to the masses, and compared to previous attempts to implement mobile payments it is massively successful. The success is attributed in the most part to utilising existing payment standards already widespread in use, especially in the UK. But there is a problem with Apple Pay, and that is the interaction at the checkout.

Imagine if you will how you paid prior to contactless or mobile payments. You’ve purchased your goods, the shop assistant has scanned all your shopping and has just given you the total.

“That will be £5.67 please…”

There is an inflection and pause at the end of the total, indicating there is a hidden question as to how you will paying. At this point it is up to you to either hand over some cash, or if you’re paying by card produce the card. Having a card in your hand is the cue to the shop assistant to enable the card machine so you can put your card in and enter your PIN. You don’t ask to pay by card, you simply produce it and the assistant then activates the chip and PIN machine.

The key in this interaction is that in most tills the chip and PIN machine is not active until a button is pressed to activate it, the cue to activate the machine is the card in the customers hand. Without that queue the machine is never activated and so you can’t pay.

The exception to the rule

In some self service checkouts this interaction is better than a regular checkout, because although the till might present you with buttons to select a payment method, inserting your card into the machine will automatically select that option, so you can skip a step. But this isn’t always the case, B&Q and Morrisons being prime examples of self service checkouts that require you to select an option. And worse in those tills if you insert the card too early then you’ll have to remove it and re-insert once you have made your selection.


Contactless debit or credit card is marginally better, having been presented with your total, you take out your card, they take the cue and activate the machine, which you then wave your card over and voila, you’ve paid.

Apple Pay

So, moving onward to 2015 with your shiny new iPhone 6 or Apple Watch. Through the miracle of corporate cooperation and no doubt some bullying of the financial industry by newcomer Apple, you can now pay for purchases with your phone via contactless payment. The great news about Apple Pay is that because of the use of the industry standard literally any store that supports regular contactless, supports Apple Pay. Apple Pay is nothing special, as far as the chip and PIN machine is concerned it looks like any other contactless bank card.

In America you’ll here people talking about rolling out support for NFC and Apple Pay, but contactless payment is less common in the USA so it’s all new and special to them. Contactless payment is very widespread in the UK and so Apple Pay is just as widespread.

The problem…

The problem with Apple Pay is in the interaction with the shop assistant.

“That will be £5.67 please…” awkward silence

Once presented with your total there is no cue for the shop assistant, I might be holding my iPhone but without a bank card in my hand there is no cue to them to activate the machine. Instead what you get is an awkward pause whilst the shop assistant waits for the answer to the unasked question.

I find that I must actually take my phone and hold it over the chip and PIN machine to make it really obvious, but even then you might get a blank look if the shop assistant doesn’t realise what you intend to do with your phone.

The problem is that unlike a bank card, you must actually take steps to either make your intention very clear by awkwardly holding the phone over the reader, or explicitly ask to pay with Apple Pay. And asking to pay with Apple Pay makes you sound a bit pretentious, at least at the moment whilst it’s still new.

And it’s even worse with an Apple Watch, there is even less of a cue to the shop assistant. You holding your wrist at an awkward angle over the reader isn’t much of a clue, and worst case makes it look like you’re reaching over the counter which could end badly if misinterpreted by the shop assistant.

The solution

The solution is fairly clear to me, tills must be updated to have their chip and PIN readers active as soon as the purchase is totalled. All tills work the same, you scan the shopping, and press the total or finish button. At this point the chip and PIN machine should become active straight away ready for contactless payment, be it via contactless bank card, or Apple Pay. Cash payment should become the button to press and activate the cash draw rather than the card payment.

Until this is done though, Apple Pay remains a rather pretentious and awkward means of paying in most shops. I don’t deny that I love to pay with Apple Pay, it is very convenient, but it’s also very awkward to use.

I hope that Apple with their corporate might can apply pressure to the payments industry to update point of sale software and hardware to improve this interaction and make it smoother and less awkward.