The merchants and issuers invested in Apple Pay must maintain a strong emphasis on employee education especially if the stakeholders want Apple's mobile wallet to avoid the fate of the many previous payment technologies that sought to displace plastic cards.
Earlier products, such as contactless cards, were deployed without widespread communication to cashiers, leading to situations where store staff pushed aside contactless card readers or left them in disrepair. Even Starbucks, regarded as a pioneer in mobile payments, faced widely publicized issues stemming from a lack of employee knowledge when it began accepting Square Wallet.
Apple's approach to retail has always been unconventional, such as its practice of installing a "Genius Bar" for tech support where other companies might place cash registers, freeing Apple employees to accept payments anywhere in the store. But with Apple Pay, the Cupertino company must project its culture onto everyday cashiers, rather than depend on its specially trained associates and tech-support "geniuses."
"Critical to Apple's success will be a whole new set of dependents that they have never had for any other product launch in its history," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. "They have to rely on training, intellect and goodwill at the point of sale."
Crone's company engaged in a mystery shopping exercise in which 12 Apple Pay-related calls were placed to issuers' contact centers. Only one rep admitted to being trained on Apple Pay, suggesting a training gap among customer-facing staff, Crone said.
For its own part, Apple is working to bring its own stores up to speed as its mobile wallet's launch draws near, according to 9to5Mac, an Apple news site (the Apple Pay wallet is coming in a software update this month). And McDonald's is also training its employees to accept Apple Pay, according to an iPhone tracking website iphonehacks.
Apple did not provide comment for this article, and McDonald's did not return a request for comment by deadline. Starbucks plans to accept Apple Pay, but does not plan training for staff, Starbucks spokesperson Maggie Jantzen said in an email.
The McDonald's training depicts about a half dozen steps for accepting Apple Pay's Near Field Communication-based payments in situations such as a drive-thru lane, where a patron might have to hold an iPhone out of the window of a car.
"The McDonald's experience illustrates the inherent challenge for NFC, to complete a transaction within [a short range]," Crone said. "Does that mean the McDonald's employee will lean out to meet a customer halfway between the window and the car, where the iPhone could fall into the street? This would make Starbucks [issues] look like child's play."
For merchants, the user experience for mobile payment is linked to their own consumer image, said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group.
"For a retailer it's going to be about the customer experience and there's a risk that a failed Apple Pay transaction could reflect poorly on the brand where the transaction is happening," Peterson said. "Clearly Apple understands this with the degree of training that they are implementing in their own stores."
Three things can go wrong with an Apple Pay transaction, Peterson said. The device may not be workingand Apple would have a diagnostic for that; the NFC reader may not work correctlywhich is the retailer or point of sale terminal provider's problem; or the card may not work, which is the issuer's problem.
Would a cashier at a fast-food window be able to identify which of these three problems caused a transaction glitch?
"It seems to me that it will be a challenge to identify the source of problems in a transaction, particularly early in the evolution of the platform," Peterson said.
Some mobile payment vendors empower consumers to troubleshoot issues at the point of sale. LevelUp, for example, added a "distress signal" button this year to let shoppers alert the LevelUp support team of any trouble making a payment.
But most, if not all, of the publicly identified Apple Pay retailers are likely to train employees to make their staff comfortable with the technology before launch, Peterson said.
"It will be more problematic for retailers that are NFC-enabled but are passively engaged with Apple Pay, meaning that they will accept the payment as an NFC transaction but aren't part of the launch," he said. "These could be retailers of any size."
The Softcard mobile wallet, previously called Isis, faced this very issue when it began testing in 2012. The wallet listed nearby merchants that accepted NFC payments, but the merchants "knew nothing about Isis," according to complaints the wallet's early adopters made over Twitter.