If consumers embrace a system in which they pay for coffee at Starbucks with their smartphones, will they do the same for Whoppers at Burger King?

Burger King Corp. is about to find out, at least on a smaller scale. The world’s second-largest hamburger chain has launched a mobile-payment pilot with Firethorn Mobile LLC in 50 Burger King restaurants in and around Salt Lake City.

A unit of San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., Firethorn Mobile developed the software for the mobile-pay system that features the BK Mobile Crown Card, a virtual prepaid card.

Burger King patrons can obtain the free virtual card through the Firethorn application, which they can download through the Apple Store or Google Play. When registering, they provide a bank debit or credit card, which the retailer uses to fund a prepaid account.

Participants may load the card into Google Android or Apple Inc. iPhones, the companies announced June 13. The plastic version of the BK Crown Card is available to anyone.

With the virtual card, Burger King patrons participating in the trial use their phones to scan a QR code at restaurant service counters or at drive-through windows to pay for their meals from the prepaid account, Chip Fishburne, vice president of business development and marketing for Firethorn Mobile, tells PaymentsSource. Payments are settled from the prepaid account.

“The consumer’s virtual card is debited each time he runs a transaction through the [mobile-pay] application,” he adds.

When customers scan the QR code, they essentially are identifying themselves at the point of sale, Fishburne explains. In turn, when the cashier runs the transaction, the code informs him of which mobile card to debit for the payment, he adds.

The entire transaction “takes no more than a couple of seconds,” Fishburne contends. First Data Corp. processes the transactions.

The application ties into QR code technology for now, but it will support Near Field Communication when that contactless technology becomes more common in the next few years, Fishburne adds.

Firethorn and Burger King plan to test the product in the Salt Lake City region for 60 days, but they could extend test as they monitor consumer acceptance, Fishburne says.

Burger King did not respond to PaymentsSource requests for comment.

Rocco Fabiano, Firethorn president, believes Burger King patrons will like the idea of not having to carry plastic cards into the restaurants.

"This software works on any Android or iOS phone and does not require new hardware investments in order to deliver this experience to restaurant guests,” Fabiano said in the press release. The restaurants would have QR code stickers at each point-of-sale terminal.

Burger King likely would relish the notion that it could hit a mobile payments home run in the same fashion as Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. did in 2011. The payments industry generally views Starbucks’ virtual payment card as an example of how consumers with loyalty to a product, especially one borne on the daily habit of drinking coffee, will embrace a mobile-payment option.

In turn, Starbucks executives have been pleased with results, touting it as one of the most successful mobile-payments systems in place (see story).

The enthusiasm at Starbucks permeates mainly because its mobile-payment service didn’t hit many bumps after its launch last year. It was popular from the outset, with more than 26 million transactions through its first year of service (see story).

Richard Crone, chief executive of San Carlos, Calif.-based payments consulting firm Crone Consulting LLC, takes the Starbucks story to another level, telling PaymentsSource the company’s deployment “is actually the most successful of a new payment type in history” with as many as 5 million customers enrolled.

Yet, Crone considers Burger King’s plan to be a “watershed announcement” for the company because it will allow the corporation to obtain information about its most loyal customers and offer a mobile-payment option.

“Burger King is very wise to try to emulate what Starbucks has done,” Crone says. “In fact, every retailer should strive to enhance a prepaid and gift card program.”

Burger King’s use of a software application and the QR code technology represents “a brilliant move” for the company because it does not have to purchase new hardware, and customer payment credentials are not stored in the phone or the merchant system.

In a bit of an ironic twist, Salt Lake City residents are experiencing a significant amount of mobile pay testing, considering the Isis mobile pay venture, a partnership of major telcos in the U.S., chose Salt Lake City as a testing site in 2012 for mobile payments on the Utah Transportation System (see story).

The major difference between an Isis pilot test and the Burger King test is that Isis relies on NFC technology and NFC-enabled phones, whereas application-based systems, such as Burger King’s, would “literally work with all smartphones,” Crone contends.

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