In 2017, long before the advent of COVID-19, Target stores launched a smartphone app that lets customers scan items as they put them in a shopping cart. Rather than stand in a checkout line, shoppers could simply tap a Target debit or credit card icon on their smartphone to pay for their groceries.
Originally created in the name of customer convenience, mobile payment systems and other contactless transaction processes have become an important tool for customers afraid of catching the virus—and for Southwest Florida grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses hoping to reopen safely. In fact, the Electronic Transactions Association predicts that the present $40 billion contactless payment market will see more than $100 billion in annual sales by 2026.
Contactless technology platforms vary in architecture, complexity and, of course, price. Even the largest retailers with limitless IT budgets have tried, and rejected, in-store systems that link ceiling cameras to cloud servers and proprietary smartphone payment apps.
Southwest Florida big box stores such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Super Target have had mixed results developing apps and procedures— known variously as autonomous checkout, contactless shopping or scan and go—for customers trying to avoid contact.
In-store systems that let customers scan product bar codes and pay without going through checkout lines are too expensive for smaller businesses to install and maintain. They require constant reprogramming as inventory sells out or is replaced by other brands. Many shoppers also find the phone scanning apps confusing and cumbersome.
Walmart Neighborhood Market at 505 SW Pine Island Road announced in March 2018 that it would allow customers to use its app to scan product barcodes and pay the bill with their phone while in the store. The store halted the program four months later.
“It was too complicated for some people to navigate,” says store manager Susan Williams. “After a few months, they came in and removed the equipment. It wasn’t catching on enough; customers weren’t using it.”
Sam’s Club members in Fort Myers can still use the company’s smartphone app to scan barcodes and pay for items without going through checkout. A store associate, however, scans the receipt on the shopper’s phone screen to ensure payment as the shopper exits the store.
A local Sam’s Club executive said his store has had mixed success with autonomous checkout. Not all the products in the store can be read by the app, he said.
“They rushed through to get everything up this last year because of COVID-19,” says the manager, who asked that his name not be used. “They really weren’t ready with everything.” Nevertheless, at least 37% of the store’s customers use it. “This year, they’re spending a lot more time putting all this back together. It is still improving.”
Customers like curbside
The good news for local grocery stores: Customers have migrated to ordering their groceries online and picking them up and paying outside the store. To verify the order, the customer holds the phone up so the employee can scan the bar code on the screen. The customer then pays for the items by tapping the app on the phone.
Wynn’s Market in Naples uses an online shopping platform developed by Freshop, said store manager Larry Landberg. Customers can create baskets and order online, either at home or with their mobile devices, and choose a pickup time. Wynn’s Market President Tim Wynn launched curbside pickup and home delivery in January 2016.
“At the height of COVID-19, we were having a hard time keeping up with the curbside pickup,” Landberg says. “Sometimes we had three or four employees going around and putting together orders.”
When they arrive for pickup, customers call the store from their cars and let them know they’ve arrived; nothing fancy. “We announce over the public address, ‘Mr. Smith is here’ and we take the groceries out to them. It’s more personal, more hands-on friendly,” Landberg says.
Smaller retailers and restaurants rely on mobile payment systems on consumers’ smartphones and inexpensive equipment at the counter that accepts mobile payment apps including Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, PayPal and other Android and iOS dashboards, said Hilary Blackburn, Achieva Credit Union’s vice president of Deposit Products and Services.
The arrangement shares the costs of the digital transaction between the retailer and the customer. PayPal, for instance, uses the QR code on the product to tie the item to the customer’s smartphone’s payment device, such as Apple Pay, and deducts it from the customer’s checking account.
“In the case of mobile wallets, such as Apple Pay, a debit card can be added to your smartphone and purchases are deducted from your checking account,” Blackburn says.
Achieva, with seven locations in Southwest Florida, helps retailers and customers manage their mobile transactions through its partnership with Heartland Payment Systems. Heartland leases and installs the payment processing equipment in client stores and also links customer mobile payment systems to the customer’s debit account, Blackburn said. Business owners, of course, can choose among countless banks and payment processors in Southwest Florida when choosing a contactless payment system.
Payment card companies such as Visa and Mastercard always take a percentage from the retailer, usually between 1% and 2% of the sales total. Companies that develop mobile payment terminals (Square, Clover Flex, GoTab, SumUp Plus, etc.), can charge a flat fee based on sales volume or a small per-transaction fee.
Sharda Spahr, owner of Old Naples Surf Shop at Naples Beach, augments her in-store sales of surf and water gear, clothing, footwear and accessories for men and women with a shopping app on her website. It features the same items and more, with delivery to the buyer’s home. Online shoppers pay as they order, while in-store customers can use Apple Pay and other mobile payment apps. “We’ve got the tap your credit card feature,” she says.
Her assistant, Katy Finnegan, said about half the in-store customers use mobile payment systems at checkout, a number which “has gone up absolutely since COVID.”
In Naples, where dining is an indoor and outdoor sport, restaurants had to reopen gradually while keeping diners safe. Many establishments turned to disposable paper menus. On the other end of the technological spectrum, Naples technology company Uptown Network has come up with a QR code menu app called Bring Your Own Menu (BYOM). Originally designed as an app on tableside iPads before the pandemic, it now streams images of chateaubriand, seafood dishes and other menu items to customer smartphones.
There’s no need to download anything; guests simply point their iPhone or Android camera at a custom QR code to access the BYOM system. Hand-to-hand interaction between patrons and employees is thus eliminated, significantly reducing the risk of virus transmission for guests and staff alike.
Phil Turner, vice president of development with Uptown Network, said the QR code links to a restaurant’s menu content stored to the cloud, which makes a menu available anywhere in the world. The fully digital, interactive menus have taken off since the pandemic hit.
“The minute we turned the app on, a lot of people started using it,” Turner says. “We’ve had millions of users since then.”
“The biggest hurdle is the device cost, providing an iPad for every guest,” he says. “But customers already have phones on them, so now we can provide contactless service while also saving on devices.”
Shula’s Steak House in Naples uses Uptown’s technology, with the QR menu code on display in the lobby of the Naples Hilton. Customers can also activate the menu on their phones at the front of the restaurant before seating.
“We introduced it in January and a lot of people use it,” says Daniel Oscar at the front desk. “Most people use the QR code for payment, too; they can e-pay on their phone, or it can be billed to their room.”
Other developers, including Up ‘N Go, develop checkout printers that automatically print a unique QR code on dinner checks so guests can scan them with their smartphone and pay using their mobile payment app. No swiping a credit card, no signing a receipt, no problem.