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Why Apple Pay’s Slow Start Doesn’t Mean It’s a Failure

Apple Pay may not have lived up to the hype created by CEO Tim Cook yet, but give it time.
October 6, 2015

A year after Apple Pay was announced, the mobile wallet built into the iPhone doesn’t look as if it will “forever change the way all of us buy things,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook said it would. 

As of September, only 27 percent of retail outlets had the terminals that accept Apple Pay.

Only 13 percent of people with phones that can use Apple Pay have tried it, according to a June survey by consumer research firm InfoScout and the payments industry site The survey also found that only a third of iPhone 6 consumers who were in a store that takes Apple Pay actually used it, down from almost half three months earlier. On top of that, Apple Pay still accounts for only 1 percent of physical store transactions in the U.S.—a “microscopic” amount, says David S. Evans, founder of payments consultant Market Platform Dynamics.

What happened?

Exactly what we should have expected, actually. It was never a secret to those close to the payments and retail businesses that usage of Apple Pay would be slow to build. Here’s why: although many major retailers such as Rite Aid, McDonald’s, and Best Buy take Apple Pay, only 27 percent of U.S. retail outlets, which include millions of small businesses, have the new checkout terminals needed to accept it, according to a September 17 study by the Strawhecker Group, a payments consultant. As a result, it’s hard even for people who have used Apple Pay to get in the habit of paying with it.

What’s more, most people still aren’t sure why they need to use their phone when a card seems to work fine. Some consumers and even store clerks also don’t know how to use Apple Pay, and many consumers believe—by all accounts erroneously—that it’s less secure than cards. Apple Pay also works chiefly on only iPhone 6 models, so even a lot of Apple loyalists can’t use it.

But it’s too early to write the post-mortem on Apple Pay. In the space of a year, Apple has managed to make more headway than any other mobile wallet contender has to date. That 1 percent of retail transactions in stores represents some $5.2 billion in sales through Apple Pay, which is three-quarters of all contactless mobile payments in physical stores, says Richard Crone of the payments advisory firm Crone Consulting. By that measure, he says, “It’s a resounding success.” (See “Why Apple Pay Is a Huge Milestone in Mobile Payments.”)

Ironically, the new credit cards that use a chip for greater security could end up boosting Apple Pay and other mobile wallets instead. For one thing, almost all the new checkout terminals are also outfitted with the near-field communication technology that mobile wallets use. The new cards also take noticeably longer to use than magnetic stripe cards, requiring consumers to insert and wait for approval. “This is a great opportunity for Apple to market the wallet as a faster way to pay,” says Joe Kleinwachter, vice president of design and innovation at payment services firm Worldpay.

Banks had set an October 1 deadline for merchants to accept the chip cards or face liability for fraud on the cards. Former Google Wallet chief Osama Bedier, now CEO of checkout terminal startup Poynt, says a third of locations are likely to have NFC capability by the end of next year. He thinks that’s the tipping point after which consumers will start to demand that nearly all the stores they frequent take mobile wallets. “I can easily see more people paying with their phones in two years than with their cards,” he says.

Meanwhile, new retail services such as order-ahead at Starbucks and Panera Bread are setting expectations for paying by phone. Indeed, e-commerce could be the grease for Apple Pay’s wheels, suggests former PayPal and Square executive Keith Rabois, an investor in several payment startups. As people get used to ordering ahead, calling an Uber, and ordering meal delivery on DoorDash, they may come to expect a similarly seamless experience in stores.

Apple’s focus on chain stores such as fast-food restaurants and grocery stores where people shop frequently could pay dividends, too. Once people build up a habit of using Apple Pay every day, they may increasingly try it at other stores as checkout terminals get upgraded—or shop instead at stores that do. The company also has been focused on small businesses, which are starting to come on board in bigger numbers. On the company’s third fiscal quarter conference call in July, CEO Tim Cook said Apple Pay was adding 80,000 small and midsize businesses a month. That could accelerate as less expensive terminals start to roll out, such as Square’s $49 wireless reader.

Not least, Apple has begun offering what could be its stealth weapon: the ability to add loyalty cards such as those from Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts and store private-label cards such as those from Kohl’s and JC Penney to Apple Pay. Each one that’s added to Apple Pay is one more reason the wallet becomes indispensable to some consumers.

None of this suggests that Apple Pay or any other mobile wallet is going to take off right away. “We’re in lap one of a marathon when it comes to mobile payments in the store,” says Jared Drieling, business intelligence manager at the Strawhecker Group. Still, some 200 million people are expected to use mobile wallets by the end of next year, double the number at the end of 2014, according to a recent report from Juniper Research. And every month, Apple keeps selling millions more new wallet-enabled iPhones. Those trends eventually should help Apple Pay prove Tim Cook right.

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