Starbucks and Square: Imperfect Together

Pay With Square is supposed to make paying with your phone at Starbucks a snap. But it flunked Fast Company's real-world test.

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Fast Company's Austin Carr has an epic story on Starbucks' support of Pay With Square, which is supposed to make paying with your phone a snap. Instead, he found that balky technology and poorly-trained personnel often made it more trouble than it was worth — when it didn't fail altogether.

Of the 20 different Starbucks stores where we tried paying with Square, six were unable to process payment through the service whatsoever. (One of these locations, it turned out, was a licensed store.) Another six were unable to scan Square, but eventually figured out how to type in the barcode to accept payment. And just eight store locations were able to accept it successfully. Depending on your outlook, and discounting the licensed store, that's either a 26% failure rate (if you count typing the barcode in as the proper experience) or a 57% failure rate (if you consider the barcode entry inadequate).

When I tried Pay With Square at a bunch of local San Francisco businesses last year, it worked wonderfully well. However, that version, which let me keep my phone in my pocket — but required the store to use an iPad or iPhone as a payment terminal — is an entirely different beast than Starbucks' variant, which is integrated with the coffee chain's point-of-sale system and involves scanning a QR code.

Carr's piece is another sobering reminder of how tough it is to build “mobile wallets” which improve on the time-tested technology known as the credit card. Plastic may be boring, but it's universally accepted, it's understood by both consumers and businesses — and it just works. That isn’t yet true of any of the challengers which are trying to render it obsolete.