Chronicle of a death foretold: CurrentC

In the week following the launch of Apple Pay, some people reported that, after being able to use their iPhones to purchase goods in shops such as Rite Aid or CVS, they suddenly got cut off and unable to purchase anything else with Apple Pay in these stores because the NFC function on the retailers cash registers had been disabled. Neither of the two chains had signed up to Apple Pay, although the system works perfectly well in any shop equipped with NFC readers.

But this was no technical glitch: it turns out that a group of chain stores, among them Kmart, Sears, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and 7 Eleven, as well as the afore-mentioned Rite Aid and CVS, had got together to block Apple Pay, along with Google Wallet, ahead of the launch of their own payment system, called CurrentC, around the middle of next year, and which is not based on NFC, but instead on… QR codes; those same QR codes that have been around since time immemorial, but that very few people use anymore, and that most analysts have now given up for lost.

QR is a slow and unwieldy system compared to Apple or Google’s, and involves scanning a QR code and then showing it to a salesperson who in turn scans it from our screen after verifying our identity. It does however have two important virtues: it can be used for loyalty programs, and does not involve credit cards (payment is directly debited from the customer’s bank account, saving retailers from paying commission to VISA, MasterCard, or Amex.

This is a clear example of a system that nobody is interested in except the retailers in question. The idea that we would prefer to go through the rigmarole of the QR system rather than the simplicity of Apple Pay defies understanding. We now have a system that works, and that can be used in plenty of stores, but not in some, because they have decided, despite having the technology, not to allow us to.

In adopting this stance, they are clearly putting their own interests ahead of their customers’ forcing us to do something we’d rather not. Several of the biggest retail chains in the United States are involved in CurrentC, and in all probability, their customers are unlikely to abandon them, given factors such as convenience, familiarity, and proximity; but the thing is that these are not the factors that count in a battle that has already been lost.

I’m willing to bet that within a year or so, we’ll see the stores in question dismantling CurrentC, and switching their NFC readers back on. Watch this space.

(En español, aquí)