Welcome to the capital of Rural America: Fremont, Michigan. If you look it up, you’ll learn that it’s a very small town, known only for the Gerber Products Company, a company that produces baby food. Nowhere in any description of Fremont will you find words like “one of the most technological towns” or “Fremont is home to a variety of technologies, including residential fiber optic systems, AT&T and T-Mobile HSPA+, and numerous ISPs.”
But if an unfortunate circumstance arose and you had to come to Fremont, you would find: four fast food restaurants, a Walgreens, a Walmart, a small grocery store, and several gas stations. Plus a lot of farmland.
Anyway, back to those previously mentioned places of business. Since there are presumably a lot of you who don’t live in big cities, and instead live in smaller ones like Fremont, I thought it would be a good idea to show how one of my favorite technologies would fare in a town like Fremont – a town with limited technologies and an even less people who know about them.
That certain technology is Google Wallet. The service has had its ups and downs, but I still think the idea is great. The execution? Well, you’ll just have to keep reading to find out.
I went to five locations that I visit on a regular basis, although only four of them had NFC-enabled terminals. I started at Walgreens, which is not on the “Where it works” list on the Google Wallet page. I should point out, however, that there have been reports of Google Wallet working at areas that aren’t guaranteed by Google.
My local Walgreens had a different kind of credit card terminal. Instead of having a line that read “PayPass” printed anywhere on it, the terminal only had a “sideways WiFi signal” that let me know it indeed had NFC. So I put my Wonka Sweet Tarts up on the counter, the cashier took and scanned them, and I proceeded to pull my phone out and put it up to the terminal.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Um, I’m paying for my candy.” I replied in a somewhat annoyed tone – only annoyed since she didn’t understand the concept of Google Wallet.
After my admittedly rude reply, she looked at my phone, puzzled that there was a MasterCard logo on the screen. Then she understood what I was trying to do.
“Oh, you can pay with your phone? How neat! Go ahead, try it out!” The excited look on her face lent credence to the fact that she had never seen or heard of this before.
Unfortunately, her excitement quickly wore off; the terminal’s NFC was completely useless. The virtual Google-branded MasterCard stayed on my screen and no charges were made.
At this point, a random shopper asked me what bank I had that provided me with this “newfangled” piece of electronics. I explained that it was called Google Wallet and that he could get it if he had a compatible Android smartphone and any type of credit card. He replied with an, “Oh.” He didn’t know what a smartphone was.
Rather than keep trying to explain Google Wallet or make it work – all while holding up the line – I paid cash for my harmful sugar and walked out of the store.
In this case, the cashier was beyond unhelpful. She stood there, eyes wide open, simply watching me unsuccessfully swipe my phone across the top of the terminal where the NFC was supposed to be. If that was the wrong place, neither of us knew, and so the whole attempt was meaningless. I don’t blame her, though: I asked her if this was her first time hearing about Google Wallet or seeing it in action, to which she replied, “Yes!”
Local grocery store
My local grocery store was actually on the list, though, and that’s where I headed next. This particular store was holding a sale on Faygo-brand sodas, so I grabbed up a 99¢ Grape soda and headed to the checkout.
I don’t know why I was expecting any different, but the cashier here was also incredibly surprised that I didn’t pull out a typical credit/debit card, checkbook, or wad of cash.
As I explained to her that I was a journalist on assignment, she rang up the soda; meanwhile, I pulled out my phone and tapped it to the top of the terminal. The baffled looks continued, but I paid little attention. This one explicitly said “PayPass,” and I was focused on making it work. My phone provided me the receipt for the bottle of soda – but the terminal asked for my PIN number. I entered it, of course, and was subsequently denied my purchase.
“Would you like to try it again?” asked the cashier.
She had no idea why it wasn’t working – and neither did I – so she let me have another pass (pun) at it. Again, a receipt popped up on my phone, but no charges were made on the prepaid card since the terminal didn’t accept it. At this point, I started getting incredibly upset. This site was actually listed on Google’s website as a “Tap and pay merchant;” why wasn’t it working?
“You know what? Here’s a dollar. This isn’t working.” I said, annoyed yet again.
However, this time, the annoyance wasn’t caused by the cashier – it was caused by Google, who obviously didn’t check to make sure that this particular grocery store actually worked.
The only other store that I regularly visit that was also listed on Google’s page was the local BP gas station. Since I already had an unhealthy drink and snack, I decided to recoup my loss of gas by putting a small amount of it into my car. I decided $2.00 of my $10.00 would be enough. So I filled up my car with $2.00 worth of gas and went inside.
The BP station’s credit card terminal had the same PayPass attachment as the grocery store did, so while I had a little hope that this one might actually work, I wasn’t holding my breath. I waited for the line to go down before I made my smallest gas purchase ever – after all, I had to take a picture and talk to the cashier about her knowledge of Google Wallet.
The line eventually went down, and I went up to the terminal and waited for the cashier to tell me how much my miniscule purchase would cost.
“Are you the one who had $2.00 in gas?” she asked. She asked that question in one of the most mocking tones I have ever heard.
“Yes, that’s me.” I usually don’t get annoyed with people unless they’re stupid or mean to me, and this cashier started out as the latter. Guess how that retort sounded?
I pulled out my phone, and put it on the terminal. I heard the “bleep!” noise that I heard earlier at the grocery store. I was expecting the worst, but the shriek that came from the cashier assured me that I had finally used Google Wallet.
“It worked! You’re good to go! Wow!” exclaimed the cashier. I myself was pleasantly surprised, of course. I asked her if she had ever heard of Google Wallet or seen the service in action. She said “No, but that’s really cool!”
I asked her if I could take a picture, and the cashier suddenly changed from an excited mood to a worried one. She asked me what I would be taking the picture of; I explained that it would be of only my phone and the terminal, and she immediately cooled off and allowed me to snap a shot.
I left the gas station with a sense of accomplishment – not only for me, but for Google, as well. I saw how amazing Google Wallet could be if Google poured time, money, and any other resources into it to make it a viable option for a lot of people. However, it was obvious to me that it isn’t quite at that stage of its life: I had already visited three separate locations and only one let me spend any money from my Google Wallet.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take a picture of the terminal and my phone here. Luckily, I found this image on the internet, naturally accredited to whoever took it in the first place. The picture was taken in 2005, and while the bottom portion of the terminal has changed a bit since then, the top has not.
I went into the local McDonald’s and ordered my helpful assistant photographer a Coke for her efforts. As I waited for the $1.06 to ring up on the cash register, I was stared at and asked many questions about my magical smartphone/credit card. I explained that I was using Google Wallet, but – again – nobody knew what that meant.
I tapped my Galaxy Nexus to the obnoxious, red NFC-enabled piece of plastic that sits on the top – but no luck. After it didn’t work, the Wallet app crashed on me. I ended up paying the $1.06, restarting my phone, and trying again with another soda. Again, no luck. After the cashier apologized for something that was not her fault, the manager walked in and saw me struggling with my Nexus.
“Oh, you have one of those… things!” It was a exclamation, but it vaguely sounded like a question. He clearly didn’t know what it was called, but he knew that there was some way for a customer to pay via a smartphone. It was also his first time of seeing someone pay with their phone, and he was surprised. I asked him if he had ever seen Google Wallet in action, and my answer was the same as every other store: a big, resounding, “Nope!”
The local Walmart didn’t have any PayPass-compatible terminals that I could see, so I walked out. I was slightly disappointed, of course, but the lack of PayPass in Walmart showed me that not every store has hopped on the NFC bandwagon – and that the lack of NFC is one of the biggest issues plaguing Wallet today.
BP – Take 2
I went back later in the day to show Google Wallet off to my friend. He has a Nexus 7 and was interested in using his $10 credit for something, too. I turned on my iPad’s WiFi hotspot, left the tablet in his van, and we went inside. We were both connected to this Verizon hotspot. He went to pay first – and failed. According to the cashier (who was there when I paid for my gas), the system was “in limboland!” We assumed this was her way of saying that something went wrong, so I told him to pay with cash. Then I thought about how he was using Verizon’s network – and that maybe there was a block on Google Wallet transactions – so I hopped out of the WiFi hotspot and used my AT&T cellular connection instead. Surprisingly, the system returned to “limboland” once again. We didn’t want to wait, so I paid with cash as well and we left.
In all, I ended up spending $2.00 of Google’s gift money – and $6.27 of my own. I don’t know what caused all of the errors, but that doesn’t matter: those errors exist, and they’re preventing people like me from using Google Wallet. And when the techies can’t viably use Google Wallet and show it off to the less technologically-informed crowd, people won’t use it. And, as a result of all that, Google Wallet will die a terrible, lonely death.
Of course, that might be a different story in a bigger city. In a bigger city, there are more people and some of those people might know a thing or two about a product or service that you don’t. For instance, I had no idea how to operate Walgreens’ NFC payment system; and at the local grocery store, I tried typing in my PIN number, only to be rejected. Here, nobody could help me because nobody knew that Google Wallet was a thing.
And unfortunately for Google, a large number of people live in smaller cities that might not have a lot of technologies – or people who know about them – readily available. There are certainly people who love (or at least know about) technology in those smaller cities, but even I needed a bit of guidance from the store cashiers on how to pay with Google Wallet. That guidance was nonexistent – and without that guidance, people who don’t know much about technology will get frustrated with it and quit using it altogether.
After using Google Wallet today, I’ve come to the conclusion that Google needs to work harder to get vendors, merchants, and people on board with Wallet. It’ll be a vicious cycle of people using Wallet to make stores accept Wallet to make banks make their cards compatible with Wallet. The only way it will be fixed is if Google pumps resources into the project to make it a viable alternative to checking accounts, credit and debit cards, and even cash.
As of right now, it’s not. I went to five stores and only one of them let me use my Wallet funds. That’s not a viable solution at all.
Of course, maybe Google doesn’t plan on making Wallet a sweeping success, or maybe it’s waiting for Apple to do the heavy work with its new Passbook app and then just piggyback off whatever success comes from that. I hope that’s not the case. I hope Google continues to take Wallet seriously – it’s a great idea, plagued by too many issues in its execution. All that needs to happen is this: Google needs to get that cycle going. That’s it!
But if Google isn’t serious about Wallet, it won’t happen. And unfortunately, I just don’t know that it is.