Business & Tech

New credit card chips are holding up the register

Colleen Michell, with her son Hanson, struggled with her chip card at a Target store in Dorchester. The cards represent a step up for security and a step down for efficiency.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Colleen Michell, with her son Hanson, struggled with her chip card at a Target store in Dorchester. The cards represent a step up for security and a step down for efficiency.

When banks mandated the use of chip-enhanced credit and debit cards last October, businesses worried about the expense of switching over and the reaction of customers long used to swiping their cards at the checkout.

Eight months later, the major credit card companies are touting the early success of the change, designed to make transactions more secure. Preliminary numbers show that credit card fraud has been reduced by 18 percent, according to Visa, and 39 percent, according to MasterCard.

Sounds like a success, unless you happen to be trapped in line at the drugstore.

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Many chip readers don’t yet work and those that do angrily beep, befuddling shoppers and exasperating cashiers. Rather than a quick side swipe of the card, customers need to insert their credit or debit card into a slot and wait for the jarringly loud foghorn tone that signals approval for some transactions.

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“I’m used to things happening fast,” said Tom Prendergast, 34, who used his card to buy dish soap at Target recently. “This just takes longer.”

In an on-demand economy where speed is a given, the new chip-card transactions have all the charm of a musty dial-up modem. Purchases can take longer, with crowded checkout lines drawing customer complaints. It’s a hassle that brick-and-mortar retailers can ill afford as they compete with the growing speed and ease of online shopping.

“It’s a pain point,” George E. Belch, chairman of the marketing department at San Diego State University, said of the process. “Shoppers are just really impatient. ... They’re like, ‘you’re wasting 15 seconds of my life.’ ”

Belch said the extra time is a tradeoff for improved security and the lowered risk of identity theft, the ultimate time-suck.

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The new credit and debit cards utilize a chip that generates a unique code with every transaction, making it more difficult for criminals to produce fake cards.

The credit card industry is taking steps to speed up chip transactions. MasterCard recently introduced what it calls its M/Chip Fast technology, which allows customers to insert and remove their cards in one motion, bringing transaction times down.

MasterCard spokeswoman Beth Kitchener said leaving a card in the reader while waiting for approval makes the time at the register feel deceptively long.

“In your head it’s taking longer,” she said. “Actually if you map it end to end the difference is slightly longer — not that much — but it’s a perception.”

Visa has also introduced software upgrades that retailers can receive, potentially at a cost, from credit card processors in order to speed up transactions.

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Visa said it has issued about 283 million chip-enabled cards in the US market. Of the more than 4 million merchant locations in the United States, 24 percent had chip devices for Visa cards as of April.

MasterCard said 70 percent of its consumer credit cards issued in the United States were chip-enabled as of May 2016. But it would not offer an exact number, citing industry competition.

“We do a lot of consumer surveys to get reaction to how chip technology is going,” said Visa vice president Stephanie Ericksen. “One of the more common experiences is it just feels like it takes longer.”

Whether real or perceived, Walmart customers may have already noticed improvements. The retail giant, which advocated for the industry-wide switch to the new cards and was one of the early adopters of the technology, has streamlined the process — there is no prompt to confirm the sale amount, for instance — to make transaction times equal to the old swipe times, spokesman Randy Hargrove said.

“Anytime you introduce something new, there’s going to be an adjustment period,” Hargrove said. “We shaved about 11 seconds off the chip-card transaction.”

While Walmart has the resources and scale to handle the changes, smaller retailers are struggling with the irritation and cost associated with the new technology, according to Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, an industry group with 3,200 members.

Hurst said the new system was foisted on merchants last fall just as they entered the busy holiday shopping season. If they did not make the switch to the new readers by Oct. 1 , they would be liable for any fraudulent purchases, instead of credit card companies and banks.

The switch also came at significant cost to retailers, Hurst said. Merchants bought readers at an average cost of about $400 each and now must deal with their clunky pace, as well as the costs of upgrades.

“It’s a mess,” Hurst said. “It’s frustrating for the consumer, it’s frustrating for the retailer.”

Many customers may find the new transaction convoluted, but for those who have used Apple Pay, it is even more frustrating. Apple Pay users load credit card information into a mobile phone application that allows users to pay with a tap of their phone.

A MasterCard spokeswoman said the new readers can accept “tap and go” payments such as Apple Pay, but a merchant decides when to turn the feature on for customers. CVS said it has not activated the Apple Pay feature in its stores.

Javier Suarez, a junior at Margarita Muniz Academy who was buying flowers at CVS in Jamaica Plain recently, said the differences between the two systems are striking.

“It’s annoying,” he said about his chip card. “They need to make it work faster.”

“It’s supposed to be in and out, and that’s not happening,” added a police officer who was also shopping at CVS and did not want to give his name.

Then there are the idle moments when customer and cashier stand awkwardly at the register waiting for the transaction to be completed.

“It’s just this weird thing,” said Ani Collum, a partner at Retail Concepts, a consulting firm in Norwell. “Do we stand here and look at each other?”

Lauren Bartolotti used her chip credit card at a Target store in Dorchester.  The payment process has drawn complaints from some customers.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Lauren Bartolotti used her chip credit card at a Target store in Dorchester. The payment process has drawn complaints from some customers.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.