No contactless please, we're British

I recently went on a mobile payments tour to Canada, where much of our time was spent talking about mobile payments. Many of the mobile payment systems being developed in Canada represent an evolution of contactless cards, a product the Canadian consumer seems particularly keen on, writes Ellie Chambers

I recently went on a mobile payments tour to Canada, where much of our time was spent talking about mobile payments. Many of the mobile payment systems being developed in Canada represent an evolution of contactless cards, a product the Canadian consumer seems particularly keen on, writes Ellie Chambers

Contactless cards have now been around in the UK for a while, yet while I was in Canada I realised that, despite this, I had never seen one being used. I can remember that several years ago, the café I worked in as a student installed contactless terminals. Neither the staff nor customers knew how to use them, so they languished dustily next to the tills, unloved and unused.

But I was willing to believe that British banks and card providers would soon be driving the kind of innovation we have seen in Canada in recent years. So when I returned home, suitcase in hand, to find a letter containing my very own contactless credit card lying on the doormat, I was keen to try it out.

The next Monday I went to Costa with a colleague, said: "I’ll get this" and held my card to the contactless terminal. The terminal emitted an angry bleep, and the cashier said: "It’s been declined." After two further attempts at NFC enabled shops I conceded defeat and took my card to my bank.

The cashier wasn’t sure why my card wasn’t working, but said using an ATM to unlock my pin might give me the power to tap and go. I did so, and hot-footed it to (a different) Costa, to try again. This time the staff told me the machine didn’t work.

These potholes in my road to contactless payment reveal why contactless has not yet taken off in the UK. Contactless terminals may have been rolled out across large chains like Costa and Lidl, but few merchants or consumers know how to use them. I knew my card was contactless from the little symbol on it – the letter from my bank did not refer to my card’s new abilities or explain how to use them.

It seems I’m not the only one having trouble with the new technology. Contactless cards have caused a few embarrassments in the news recently, with M&S customers in May reporting that payments had been taken from cards a foot from terminals and in purses or bags.

On 23 October First Direct told customers to remove cards from their wallets before using. It seems that some customers accidentally made transactions from the wrong card by tapping the whole wallet against terminals.

If British banks and card issuers want to see progress in payments, they’re going to have to try a bit harder. It’s not enough for them to issue a card to a customer, then sit on their hands while said customer struggles to grasp the new technology.

A study by Mintel last May showed that nearly two thirds of UK customers with contactless enabled cards have never used the feature, meaning that only 5% of the UK population has ever used one. If banks truly want customers to use new payments technology, they need to drop this strange reluctance to talk about their new cards and educate customers and merchants in how to use them.

In the mean time, you’ll be glad to know that I’ve cracked my contactless card. With the power to satisfy my caffeine cravings without entering my pin, who knows what I can accomplish?