On Tim Horton's and its Faulty Embrace of New Technology

In the attempts to divide this nation between Tim Horton’s double-double drinking Joes and elite Starbucks latte sippers, I come down firmly in the middle. I drink at both establishments. Copiously. So much so, that I own both a Tim Horton’s card and a Starbucks card.

What can I say? I need my cup of Joe. And I don’t ever want to be caught short for cash, so the cards, which are automatically reloaded when my balance gets down past a certain level, are convenient and ensure my access to caffeine is never blocked.

And when Starbucks expanded its card into an iPhone app, allowing users to swipe their phone display over a scanner in order to pay, I embraced the technology. It was one less card I had to carry in my wallet.

Cellphone payments are the next big thing in mobile technology. In the drive to converge everything that can bulk up a pocket or a travel pack, we’ve subsumed our digital cameras, a number of our computer programs, GPS maps, internet searches into a little device with a four-inch screen. Some phones, like the Android or the Blackberry, are now experimenting with “near field chip readers”. I look forward to a future where I no longer have to take out my wallet to swipe my Presto card before boarding a GO train.

Tim Horton’s has always been a bit behind the times, though. Used to be, you could only pay cash at these establishments. It was thought to be faster, if you didn’t count the time it took to fish into your pockets and pull out the proper change (and, to be fair, it is compared to the time it takes to punch in your pass code on your debit card, and wait for authorization). They had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the debit card world. Their embrace of the TimCard, however, came fast, and the company has had great incentive to make sure that a piece of plastic that allows them to hold on to a chunk of your money until you actually use it to pay for something works flawlessly at the cash register.

But their attempt to allow payments by mobile phone has been shaky, at best. If you don’t have the near field communications chip of an Android or a Blackberry, they rely on having your iPhone display a barcode which they can then scan — precisely the technology that Starbucks uses.

So, why can’t Tim Horton’s get this right?

Earlier today, I came up to the Tim Horton’s cashier and ordered breakfast. I told her I was going to pay by my cellphone. And this is what followed.

“Okay,” she chirped. And she picked up the scanner and scanned my phone.

The scanner went “beep!”

We waited.

“It didn’t go through,” she said. “Let’s try this again.”

She picked up the scanner and scanned my phone.

The scanner went “beep!”

We waited some more.

Repeat last four lines sixteen times.

In the end, I paid cash.

The thing is, I know this system works, because I’ve used it successfully in many establishments. And there seems no rhyme nor reason which establishments this works at. From downtown Toronto to far flung North Bay, I’ve had payments work, and I’ve had cashiers be completely flummoxed over how to make the payment work. Invariably, they turn to the back and call up a manager, or the one person who seems to understand the nuance of the system. He or she then shows up, taps a few buttons, scans the phone again, and the payment goes through.

Guys, Starbucks had this down over a year ago. What is up with your training? Mobile phones aren’t going to go away.

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