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Watch out, Apple Pay. Tap-to-pay cards are coming on strong

These cards could speed up how we shop and commute every day.

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Haley Nusbaum, Visa's senior director of consumer products, shows off two tap-to-pay vending machines at her company's contactless payments event space.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

At an events space by New York's Union Square, Visa and Chase last week created a pop-up party venue to celebrate -- of all things -- contactless payments. There was a tap-to-pay transit terminal, brightly colored tap-to-pay vending machines and a wall-mounted display that let you tap to pay to get someone behind a curtain to hand you a tote bag.

Executives there were predictably psyched about what they saw as the transformative power of this technology.

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This story is part of CNET's ongoing Follow the Money series.

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"It's just a really exciting time," Dan Sanford, Visa's global head of contactless payments, told a small group of reporters. "It's fast, it's secure, and it's seamless for the customer."

For the past few years, much of the attention in the payments world has been directed at mobile devices, with Apple, Google and Samsung making it possible to pay at the register by waving your phone or smartwatch. Now that same radio technology enabling mobile payments is finally coming to scale for credit and debit cards in the US.

You simply wave your card in front of a payment terminal and you're done. No more swiping, no dipping.

And, yes, we Americans know this is far from a new technology, with countries including Canada, the UK, South Korea, China and Australia offering contactless cards for years. Also, yes, this isn't even the first time contactless cards were attempted in the US.

Despite this wait, American banks, payments networks, transit agencies and retailers are no less enthused about the change. They expect the rollout of contactless cards will bring about a major shift in consumer behavior, speeding up transactions and changing the way we shop and commute every day.

Apple and Google are jumping on board the tap-to-pay bandwagon, hoping its popularity will encourage more people to use mobile payments like Apple Pay and Google Pay. All these financial and tech companies are hoping the simplicity of tap-to-pay will get more shoppers using these payment platforms instead of cash and hopefully get them shopping more.

"Whenever you make it easy, it really unlocks the potential for the consumer to spend more," Linda Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of merchants and acceptance at Mastercard, said in an interview.

The shift is already starting, with New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority turning on contactless payments this Friday. This transition is expected to kick into high gear as this year continues and more banks issue contactless cards. Chase has already sent out 20 million contactless credit cards, and Visa expects 100 million Visa contactless cards to be issued by year's end.

But it's easy to be skeptical about this change. Contactless cards came to the US about a decade ago and failed to take off, as few retailers accepted them. These cards' return has been delayed for a long time since then, thwarted by the massive size and complexity of the US market.

Google, Apple and Samsung have tried for years to get folks to use mobile payments -- which four years ago was the big new thing -- but adoption continues to be slow. Also, the last time the US payments industry pushed a big change for consumers, it was a switch from magstripe cards to chip cards in 2015.

That transition made payments safer but irked customers, who didn't know whether to swipe or dip when paying and had to wait longer to complete a transaction when using a chip card. Payments companies are hoping to fix those issues this time around, aided by faster transaction speeds while offering the same level of security as chip cards.

Still, payments companies may just end up introducing yet another way to pay that confuses customers even more.

Training commuters

Changing consumer habits can be notoriously difficult, but payments experts predict transit will be a big driver for tap-to-pay adoption. Executives from Visa and Mastercard said they've already seen this transition work in other countries when contactless cards are introduced.

Along with New York's MTA, Portland already turned on contactless payments with its Hop Fastpass transit cards in 2017, and Chicago has been offering its contactless Ventra transit system for five years. As with the MTA, both offer mobile payment options, and more US transit systems are expected to join this list soon.

With the MTA's new OMNY contactless system, riders will no longer need to carry separate transit cards or wait in long lines to reload funds during rush hour. Instead, they'll be able to tap their contactless cards or smartphones at a turnstile and go. That change should result in fewer lines, fewer missed trains and fewer lost transit cards.

"You can argue contactless will be evolutionary in retail," Visa's Sanford said. "For transit it's completely transformational."

That positive transit experience is expected to encourage people to keep tapping to pay throughout the day, helping push adoption to contactless at restaurants and stores.

The new OMNY system should help the MTA cut down on maintenance costs for its bulky MetroCard payment stations and provide much-needed space underground as it removes those machines from stations.

"My problem with contactless and mobile wallets in general is that it didn't solve an actual problem," said Rivka Gewirtz Little, a payments analyst at research firm IDC. "We're beginning to see that actually happen."

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Stores that do away with cash, however, are facing a backlash from local politicians amid concerns these locations discriminate against customers without bank accounts, including lower-income people and teenagers. Looking to avoid a similar situation, the MTA is phasing out its MetroCard slowly, with availability until 2023. After that, the MTA will still sell its own contactless cards that can be used for the OMNY system.

The MTA will start by offering single rides using its tap-to-pay system, with availability starting on a limited number of trains and buses. By the end of next year, contactless will go systemwide and the MTA plans to offer different fare options, like student fares and popular monthly passes.

Also, Mastercard announced on Thursday a new Fareback Friday program, which will give cardholders a free MTA ride (up to two per card per day) if they tap to pay. The program will run every Friday in June and July and be available on the 4, 5 or 6 lines between Grand Central and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center.  

Mobile payments may get left behind

Right now, 80 of the top 100 US retail stores already accept contactless payments, Visa said. Payment companies are now working hard to drive interest in tap-to-pay, with Visa putting together a big TV ad campaign featuring the New York Giants' Eli Manning and Saquon Barkley showing off tap-to-pay in stores and at vending machines.

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A demo of a new tap-and-go transit turnstile.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

But despite tech companies' excitement about this transition, contactless cards may not convince many to start using mobile payments. Visa, for instance, said nearly half its face-to-face transactions outside the US are already contactless, but 90% of those transactions in mature markets are with cards, not phones. Visa and Mastercard say they aren't picking sides between cards and phones, saying they just want to give customers choices -- so long as those choices don't include cash.

That's been a struggle for mobile payments from the beginning. US customers are just more comfortable using cards or cash and haven't seen enough benefit from mobile payments to justify changing their ways. In a sense, contactless cards are an admission that mobile payments haven't gained as much popularity as hoped. Otherwise, they wouldn't be needed.

In China, nearly 80% of smartphone users made a mobile payment transaction within six months, according to an eMarketer study. Comparatively, only 25% of US customers had, due in part to US retailers' slow adoption of contactless technology.

For its part, Apple has pointed to robust growth for Apple Pay, with CEO Tim Cook saying last month that transaction volume more than doubled from a year earlier.

All the attention on contactless certainly offers another potential spark for Apple Pay and Google Pay. The ability to pay with your Apple Watch at a transit turnstile without even having to slow down could draw in more customers, too.

"Contactless card adoption and wearables," Little said, "will drive how open we are to mobile wallets."

First published at 5 a.m. PT.
Updated at 7:09 a.m. PT: Adds mention of Mastercard Fareback Friday program.