48 Hours with No Cash and No Plastic
~8 min read
It’s 5:10. I am exactly one alarm snooze behind schedule, but still should be able to make my train without any trouble, if I can get a car to the station without too much of a wait. I quickly do a mental assessment of my options: I can either order an Uber, a Lyft, or walk to the corner and stick my hand out to get a cab. I opt for the latter: even at 5 a.m. a cab is pretty easy to find in my part of NYC. Little did I know that I was setting off on a wallet-less adventure.
I had purchased my train ticket on the Amtrak app and it was already safely saved in the Passbook of my iPhone 5, so at no point during this brief mental survey of transportation options did my thoughts wander further than my mobile. Both Uber and Lyft, obviously, are ordered via a smartphone, while New York City taxicabs have one of two available mobile payment systems built in: RideLinQ requires the passenger to type in a seven-digit cab ID into the app when on board, while Way2ride offers the choice between typing the code into the app, or simply opening the app and holding it against the speaker of the onboard passenger TV screen. Whichever way I chose to get to Penn Station, I was going to be paying by phone.
After having hailed a cab at the first attempt, I slid into it and did a quick check on Google maps on my phone to see my margin of error for getting to the station, all the while feeling smugly satisfied as green light after green light welcomed me in the dark as we drove up Eighth Avenue. As we approached the station a penny dropped and shattered my smugness: I had forgotten my wallet. I could see it in my mind’s eye, sitting on the bench in the kitchen. My only concern at 5 a.m. had been getting to the station, and my wallet had had no role to play. I didn’t have time to go back for it, so decided that I was going to have to spend the next two days in Washington D.C. on just a wing, a prayer, and a mobile.
“This could be fun”, I thought to myself, as I settled into my seat and mulled over the prospect of surviving two days with just my phone and my credit card number (I was staying with friends so did not have to worry about paying for accommodation). 90 minutes into the journey, however, thirsty, hungry, and caffeine-starved, I began to reconsider how much fun this actually might turn out to be. I tweeted at Amtrak, complete with the #forgotmywallet hashtag, inquiring when are they going to start taking mobile payments, but was met with stony silence (though in truth I was really hoping a sympathetic customer service agent might offer me a cup of coffee on the house. Fat chance.) At this point I realized I was going to have to plan carefully if I was going to be able to avoid an uncomfortable couple of days.
I knew that lunch wouldn’t be a problem, as there is a Sweetgreen salad bar around the corner from the Mondato offices and I already had the app for it. Breakfast at Union Station would also be easy, so long as I was able to download and put credit on the Starbucks app without any problems, which I was, well in time for our arrival in Washington. As I scurried from the platform and through the arcades at Union Station in Washington I scanned around me for other potential mobile payment opportunities, but my cursory survey revealed none. There was a line out the door at Starbucks, but at this point I had no option but to join it, for if I didn’t get food and coffee soon, anyone who even glanced sideways at me was, unwittingly, taking a big gamble with their personal wellbeing.
I took a few moments to explore the Starbucks app while I waited in line; it is quite slick, well branded, and generally intuitive. The staff knew immediately what to do when they saw I wanted to pay with it, and it worked first time without any hiccups. I was fairly impressed: as well as offering payment and a tiered reward structure (only “four stars until Green Level” – whatever that means), I was also able to download their free Song of the Week from iTunes to entertain me while I waited in line. It is fairly easy to see why it is the most popular payment app in the United States.
Feeling much more human after coffee and a croissant, I ordered a Lyft to take me from Union Station to the office, and later used my Sweetgreen app to buy lunch as I had many times before. An Uber took me after work to my friend’s place, from where we headed out to dinner. I knew that my friend already used Venmo (because I had introduced him to it), so when it was time to settle the check I asked him to cover me and I Venmo’d him the money before we had even risen from the table. Day One of the challenge successfully completed.
Obviously, it would have been possible to repeat the routine again on Day Two, but that would have been boring, so I decided, having breakfasted and caffeinated at my friend’s house, that I had to find somewhere different to have lunch. I opened up Tabbed Out – an app I already had installed on my phone – but the pickings in DC were slim, and I couldn’t imagine the boss being terribly happy if I headed out to luncheon at either a sportsbar or a posh waterfront restaurant, neither of which were particularly close by. Working in the mobile payments space, however, I was at an advantage in that I knew that the Sweetgreen app was powered by LevelUp, so I did a quick Google search for “Washington DC LevelUp” to see what I could find, but the results were disappointing. Undaunted, and knowing that the Sweetgreen app was really just a white-label LevelUp payment platform, I decided to search the App Store for LevelUp. To my delight I found the app, complete with built-in map of places I could use it. Lunch at The Protein Bar was on.
The original plan had been to grab a coffee and a snack at Starbucks at Union Station before getting on the 7 p.m. train, however, traffic on the way there meant that I didn’t have time. By the time I stepped off the train three hours later, back in Penn Station, I had developed a deep hatred for Amtrak’s 21st century payment processes, as well as their quirky approach to air conditioning carriages in the dead of winter. I needed to find a Starbucks, and fast.
Penn Station in New York City is a soul-destroying place, devoid of natural light and fresh air, laid out like a rabbit warren, where miserable passengers gather in clusters awaiting last-minute platform announcements that herald the beginning of a boarding process apparently designed by someone who has never actually taken a train before. It’s not a fun place to be at any time, and even less so when you are hungry and have no wallet. I dashed around, looking left and right in the hope of seeing the generally ubiquitous green-and-white mermaid that promised sustenance. I was to be disappointed. Instead, apparently everywhere I looked, I saw Dunkin Donuts. By this point, however, I was in little mood to download another app, put in my name, address, email, card details etc. etc., so I decided to check out both Tabbed Out and LevelUp to see if they offered anything more hassle-free than another new payment app. I drew blanks, and so was left with a choice between either downloading the Dunkin Donuts app or snatching the half-eaten sandwich out of the hands of the homeless guy sitting on the steps nearby. Here we go again.
The DD app experience was considerably clunkier than that of Starbucks. Did I want to buy a card? I didn’t think so: I just wanted to put money on it so I could get a donut. I just want some food, please, and fast. By the time I had worked out that they were the same thing another minute or two had passed; my blood sugar levels had dropped further, my temper was rising, and my tolerance for badly designed apps was evaporating. When I got to the front of the line to place my order and pay, there was no device to scan my “DD card”, and the sales assistant had to manually enter the number into a cardswipe machine, twice, because she got the number wrong the first time. I scoffed the donut as I waited to get into a cab, and while on my way home placed a delivery order with GrubHub. By this point, I was tired of the experiment.
In many respects, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get by with just my phone, though it did involve having to take cabs, Ubers and Lyfts anywhere, so it is not an economical option in the absence of being able to take public transport using your phone, as may be done in Tokyo and elsewhere. The “app for every restaurant” model is clearly not feasible in the long run, but I, for one, would have eaten elsewhere at Union and Penn Stations, had I had the option. My own experience with Sweetgreen, and the experience of millions of others with Starbucks, shows that with the right incentives and rewards, regular customers can be persuaded to download and use the app for payments. Occasional (or desperate) customers could be persuaded to use it if circumstances dictate it, especially the more intuitive the experience is, and the more it feels like using a digital wallet, rather than buying yourself a non-refundable gift card (which, in Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts’ case, is actually what you are doing).
Moreover when it comes to “non-gift card” platforms, it was singularly important for the consumer to have a constellation of choices to drive usage, otherwise it gets boring. To avoid repetition I wanted dining options; unfortunately in Washington DC I didn’t have enough of them to be able to use Tabbed Out. LevelUp, on the other hand, gave me enough of a variety that, although I had to walk a few blocks to get an option other than Sweetgreen, I was presented with a sufficient variety of alternatives to make it feel like a real choice rather than an imposition (and it helped that the burrito was good).
Unless you don’t like variety in your diet, have a lot of time on your hands, or can afford to spend significant sums of money dashing around in cabs to restaurants dotted around your city, we are still a while away yet from being able to confidently walk out your front door with only your phone in your hand and know that you won’t want for something. At the same time though, if you do find yourself in that situation (and you have your CC number on hand or available), you shouldn’t be panicked if you inadvertently do. Just be prepared to eat donuts.
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