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Mobile payment wants to replace cash and cards. But will it also also phase out human interaction? Tim Green ponders the demise of small talk on the high street…

There’s something I find endlessly fascinating about mobile: its unforeseen consequences.

Take the camera phone. When it came along, most people could have guessed the impact on the traditional camera business. They may even have foreseen all those phones being held aloft at gigs.
But I don’t recall anyone saying the camera phone would give birth to the selfie – and that the selfie would kill the autograph.

    I’ve written many times about the inadequacy of most in-store mobile payment products. They have to do more than just pay or they won’t solve a problem, I say.

So what about in-store mobile payments? Well, it turns out they’re making us rude.

Last month, Buzzfeed published a very long piece by journalist Charlie Warzel, who lived for a month without cash or cards. It’s a good read. It covers a lot of ground, not least the hack’s painful attempt to have a payment chip embedded in his hand.

But the bit that stayed with me was a throwaway line from a coffee shop worker about the impact of an order-ahead mobile payment app on his job.

“I want you to write about how much this sucks for us,” he said. “It’s like, now everyone who comes in is a robot — they just stare at their phone and wait to have their name called. Nobody even looks at us.”


Like others, I’ve written many times about the inadequacy of most in-store mobile payment products. They have to do more than just pay or they won’t solve a problem, I say. They have to do invoices and offers and price comparison and order ahead.

Yes, order ahead. But these benefits are always framed in terms of the consumer. We rarely think of the poor shop assistant.

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive. I’m the guy who will never ever use the phone when I buy something in a shop. I wouldn’t dream of leaving my headphones on.

But nearly everyone else does. It just seems so rude to me. And I sense that shop assistants are past caring. They mostly appear resigned to being overlooked as human beings in these transactions. All a bit heartbreaking.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting – being old-fashioned and behind-the-times. 10 years ago you could tell old people by the way they left voicemails on landlines that ended ‘yours sincerely’. Now, they’re they’re the losers who take their headphones off when they’re buying bananas.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Apparently this is not the only etiquette issue arising from new payments norms. I’ve started to notice shop assistants taking possession of people’s contactless cards and doing the tapping themselves.

I’m not the only one to detect it. A journalist in the FT recently wrote about how cross it makes her.  She says it’s like the assistant saying: “Don’t worry, I took the right money out of your wallet for you.”

So it seems like these new payment methods may do something far more profound than disrupt the financial system. They could change the way we talk to strangers.

For the British, there is nothing more terrifying.