JR East Reserve Seat Ticket Machines Going Cashless


2019 looks to be a year of change and going cashless. JR East is swapping out old reserve seat ticket machines with new ones that only take credit cards and transit cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.). This sign in Ikebukuro station says the last day for cash purchases is February 27, cashless operation starts March 1. From this date customers who want to buy reserve seat ticket purchases with cash have to line up at JR Ticket Offices (Midori-no-madoguchi) and at Travel Service Centers (View Plaza).

It will be interesting to see if the new machines will use the ‘smart bin’ design approach that accepts both plastic cards and smartphones for Apple Pay Suica, etc.

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Japanese Train Safety

In case you have ever wondered why Japanese train drivers and conductors point and call, shisa kanko, here is a good explanation and video. The practice reduces operational errors by 85%. According to discussion comments on Hackner News it appears that point and call is used in other professions too.

Tests prove point and call reduces errors at the 1:40 mark

Yes, QR Codes Suck for Transit

Here are QR Codes in action at subway transit gates in Beijing.

And here is Suica in action.

Working Backwards from the User

The Suica development starting point was a user problem with magnetic card commuter passes. Old style paper passes were visually inspected at gates and could stay ‘in-wallet’ with a clear plastic opening. Magnetic card commuter passes had to be removed from the wallet and feed through the gate reader. Engineers wanted to recapture the simplicity of paper passes with IC cards.

The development process involved a lot or trail and error but Suica turned out not only to be convenient and fast but also user friendly in the way that people use things, in-wallet or otherwise. This is a classic Steve Jobs design principle: start with the user experience and work backwards to the technology.

Smartphones replicate the in-wallet experience as ‘Express Cards’ on digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. The user pulls out the device and holds it to the reader. No unlocking or Touch ID/Face ID required.

QR Codes and EMV contactless on smartphones share the same transit problem of old magnetic card passes: they are not ‘in-wallet’. Devices have to be unlocked to open an app or perform a biometric authentication. This problem is compounded by poorly designed transit gate QR and EMV readers that end up forcing users to adapt to the technology and it slows everything way down. This is a design failure that would never meet the requirements of Tokyo stations where a gate has to clear 60 people a minute.

What’s fascinating to me is the assumption by some people in China, Hong Kong and even Japan that the QR Code success in China automatically qualifies it as a global payment standard regardless of the technology and business models already in place. This doesn’t ring true to me, there is something else going on.

China for example has put a lot effort into creating and promoting the China T-Union transit card standard which can be added to MI Pay, Apple Pay and Huawei Pay. Nevertheless there are not many people using China T-Union in the video. The Japanese tweet comments say that recharging China T-Union cards are not very convenient and do not offer the point goodies that AliPay and WeChat Pay do. Bingo. Is it really is that simple?

Technologies that have viable business models attached to them work better in the long run. FeliCa fares better than China T-Union or CEPAS (EZ-Link) because a transit platform like Suica does better job of attaching services and point goodies on the back end. Perhaps if China T-Union had a better business model that offered more recharge reward goodies and services on the backend to compete with QR ecosystems people might use it more, unfortunately business promotion is hard for government run transit authorities.

Martin Luther King Day

My mother was never one to tell stories, especially her own. But there was one she had that was special to her. My mother attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where she studied voice. Shortly after getting engaged she went into the ladies room at school and saw a fellow voice student admiring an engagement ring in the mirror. They compared and admired engagement rings and talked about their future husbands. My mother was going to marry a Naval Academy grad on his first year of duty, her fellow student Coretta Scott was going to marry Martin Luther King.

Coretta Scott King and my mother were married in the same year 1953, and died of cancer in the same year, 2006. As far as I know the New England Conservatory ladies room mirror was their only point of contact but I like to imagine the scene my mother described: two talented and beautiful young women excitedly talking about the future paths they were embarking on, and congratulating each other.

The paths were very different but I know they were each very proud of their families. I never knew Coretta Scott King but when I hear her sing, I immediately recognize the same beautifully trained voice I heard when my mother sang hymns at church. I also recognize that great lives are always around us, sometimes very close, but only visible if we take the time to truly observe them.

Joe Odagiri AirPAY Ads

OK, things are heating up in the Japanese cashless payments market ahead of the 10% consumption tax hike with cashless incentives. And things are getting fun. What other country in the world runs TV ads for cashless payment terminals?

Recruit’s AirPay POS system for small stores deftly navigates the entire Japan cashless map and is running an TV ad campaign featuring Joe Odagiri and rich visitors from abroad in various roles with credit cards. The punch line is “Do you take cards?” to which Joe Odagiri the store owner invariably replies, “cash only”. The rich customers walk away and Joe says, “I wish we had AirPay.” It pokes fun at the Japanese penchant for cash.