Finding Apple Pay-accepting merchants in the U.K. isn't quite the needle-in-the-haystack proposition that it is in the U.S., but it's still enough of a challenge to raise concerns among Apple's partners during the mobile wallet's launch in the country.

At issue is the ubiquity of Near Field Communication-based terminals. Apple Pay launched in the U.K. with about 250,000 retail locations – a larger existing market for contactless mobile payments than exists in the U.S. – but it is still not obvious to consumers which stores support NFC wallets. MasterCard is working to address this problem by offering the same "locator" app that it used in the U.S. to help consumers find retailers that support Apple Pay. 

The MasterCard Nearby app is meant to highlight the number of merchants supporting contactless PayPass payments (and, thus, supporting Apple Pay), but it also highlights the problem with the state of mobile payments today.

"The assertion that consumers are willing to cross-reference an application to find stores that accept their mobile wallet of choice is fairly ludicrous," said Jordan McKee, a senior analyst at 451 Research. "For the average consumer, payment is an afterthought…given incumbent forms of payment work well and are accepted almost ubiquitously, any alternative must provide an experience that is at least as seamless to succeed."

Apple may be tackling this problem from a different angle. During a presentation in June, Apple unveiled a number of updates it had been working on for Apple Pay, including support for retailer private-label cards and gift cards. The Apple Wallet app will be able to detect when a consumer is at the proper retailer and present the store's card automatically.

In this way, Apple devices will be able to tell the user when they are near a participating merchant. However, these features are planned for iOS 9, a version of the company's mobile operating system that is not planned for public release until the fall. Until then, MasterCard Nearby is filling a void.

MasterCard Nearby grew out of the card network's ATM locator technology, and can also be used to track consumer adoption and usage patterns for new technology. MasterCard did not make an executive available for an interview by deadline, nor say how many people in the U.S. have used MasterCard Nearby to find an Apple Pay retailer.

A quarter of British consumers say they intend to make a contactless payment with their mobile device in the next year and one third of potential users intend to link a credit card to their smartphone for contactless payments, according to MasterCard consumer research.

But it would be a stretch to suggest that even with a locator app, Apple Pay is prevalent enough to allow consumers to stop using their plastic cards, even in urban areas.

"It's really less about overall number of locations and more about location density … There are very few areas that meet these criteria and few consumers who are so enthused about paying with their phones that they will leave their cards at home," said Rick Oglesby, head of research for Double Diamond Payments Research.

While 100% availability would be optimum, the use of a locator app should help build consumer momentum in the short term, said Kamran Zaki, president of President of Adyen North America. Adyen, a payments technology company, on Tuesday announced it is enabling Apple Pay in the U.K. for JD Sports, JUST EAT, Polagram, River Island, Takeaway.com, and other retailers. It also provides a single Apple Pay integration point for retailers that accept payments in both the U.S. and the U.K.

"Like anything, if the technology is ubiquitously available and you don't have to think about it, that's good," Zaki said, adding it will still be helpful for consumers to use Apple Pay if they have certainty that it will work at a particular store.

Ultimately, the success of MasterCard Nearby will be also be reliant on deeper penetration of NFC terminals.

MasterCard Nearby could succeed in its mission if it adds more reasons for consumers to use it, said Richard Crone, a payments consultant.

"The value of the MasterCard locator app is extending offers based on [geolocation], a relevant offer that will move the needle, not just based on acceptance of NFC," he said. "Consumers aren't asking 'where can I use NFC payments?'"

Apple did not return a request for comment.

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