No podium finish for contactless payments

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13 August 2012
Gareth Lodge
So it’s all over. 7 years in the making, 2 weeks in delivering and – hopefully – years of continued benefit. Yes, I’m referring to the Olympics which has captivated so many of us. On just about every point, it’s been a success, with our British humour shining through, from the opening ceremony to the volunteers and their banter with the crowds. And even the sun made a rare appearance. I was lucky enough to go to two different venues last week and so was curious as to what the feedback was nearing the end of the 2 weeks of the various payments initiatives taking place Firstly was the sponsorship by Visa. Zil touched upon the involvement in an earlier post. As part of its sponsorship, Visa had exclusive payments rights to both buy tickets, but to also be the only electronic form of payment within the Olympic venues, including ATM access. This was widely criticised in the press, and indeed, by every person I asked. The sponsorship was not just to drive the usual activities (card adoption, volumes, etc) but to also showcase contactless technologies. To that end, they enabled every vending machine at every venue. So what actually happened? A highly scientific survey was rigorously followed – not! I asked every till operator that I used, and watched the transactions in every queue I was in and the results seemed very conclusive. It suggested the vast majority of payments were actually made in cash. In fact, I can recall very few payments made by card at all and I witnessed absolutely none made by contactless, let alone mobile contactless. Even the Visa ATMs were, at the times I passed them, unused. I think there are a few obvious points. Firstly, the sums involved for my transactions exceeded the limit for a contactless payment. Whilst as an “industry insider” I’d heard that the limit had been raised in the Olympic Park, but absolutely nobody else seemed to know this, and indeed, many thought the old limit, and not the new £20 was in place. There weren't any signs at the tills, let alone ambassadors promoting the benefits. Secondly, some of the contactless use cases were simply bypassed. For example I was sent my travel card as part of my ticket price (and therefore didn’t buy a ticket), there were mobile drinks vendors who came to you rather than needing to seek out the vending machine, and who only accepted cash etc. And of course I saw a number of US non-chip cards refused by the tellers. And what of mobile contactless? I didn’t find a Visa stand in the same way that the other sponsors had stands, but I did find one from their partner, Samsung. 800 athletes & key decision makers were given the new S3. And the guides on the stand did an admirable job on highlighting the NFC capability as a key feature. But having teased us, that was it – they didn’t even have any way of demonstrating it…. So what can we take away from this? It’s not for me to judge whether this was a success or not for Visa. I’d love to hear their feedback on how they felt it went as my survey truly was anecdotal, and to hear what other attendees thought. But overall, I felt it was a missed opportunity, with not even basic promotion other than smug sign “Proud to only accept Visa”. Indeed, it felt as it there were some very obvious and basic things that were missed. Instead of the industry showcasing the technology of the future, it actually showed why cash is not going to disappear anytime soon. Customers don’t care about anyone’s pride when buying something– the industry has to remember it’s about why they are making a transaction, not our feelings. Sadly, cash won gold in this case, whilst I think other forms of payments simply failed to qualify for the finals.


  • Update.
    I've had quite a few questions asking me whether I think the Visa strategy back-fired on them. As I say above, that's not for me to decide.

    What I do note is that according to figures they released today ( )an additional $1.4bn was spent on Visa accounts in London during the 2 weeks of the Olympics. I was commenting on my experience inside the park of contactless payments. A $100m a day uplift in in spending is pretty good by anyone's standards!

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