NFC Tag Apple Pay and Japanese Softcream

Summer is here and the increasing number of Apple Pay Suica inbound tweets are fun to read as always. I saw inbound in action recently at a local station NewDays, 2 Chinese women walked up to the checkout and asked in English “Can we pay here with this?” One was waving a Suica card, the other waving her iPhone. People really appreciate the ease and speed of Suica Express Transit.

However, there are still lots of times on the road when you come face to face with the so called ‘curse of Japanese cash addiction’, and the fact that, even though things have changed a great deal since Apple Pay arrived in Japan, there’s still a long way to go.

I had the that kind of experience recently coming back from Minobu on the Keio Highway Bus. That particular bus has a 10 minute rest break at Shakado Parking Area just outside of Kofu on the Chuo Expressway. There’s barely enough time to dash to the restroom and grab a drink for a long congested crawl to Shinjuku Bus Terminal.

Like many Japanese highway rest areas, Shakado offers delicious looking local specialties. Kofu is a well known for it’s delicious fruits, the Shakado cafeteria softcream fruit parfait looked too good to pass up. With 6 minutes to spare I hunted for the softcream button on the meal ticket machine, which was Suica compatible, but couldn’t find it. I asked one of the staff and they pointed to a separate smaller ticket machine that was just for softcream, a separate stall vendor, and not only was it cash only, it was coin only.

Where’s the softcream button?

Fortunately I had lots of coins that day, a rarity, but pitied another poor westerner wandering around obviously interested in that delicious looking softcream without a clue how to buy one, but I was out of time and dashed for the bus. With a softcream fruit parfait. It was delicious.

After 2 years of writing about cashless/contactless trends, I think I have finally hit on the perfect index for Japan: The Softcream Cashless Index (SCI). Nothing is more regional, seasonal, ubiquitous, cash only and delicious as the endlessly glorious variety of Japanese softcream. Sure, MiniStop has pretty good softcream and all the cashless options like Apple Pay Suica, but those parking area seasonal regionals like Yamagata Cherry softcream (to die for) are always cash cash.

On a scale of 1~10, I put the Japanese national SCI average at 2. Softcream stalls are the worst candidates for the usual cashless options: credit cards/FeliCa/QR etc., because they are mostly one person operations, or side stalls of larger retail operations. Nobody wants to invest in cashless terminals, or even cashless ticket machines, for such mundane, low priced, low margin softcream side business. If softcream can be made cashless, Japan will truly be a cashless nation.

The NFC Tag Apple Pay Option
The ideal cashless payment infrastructure investment for softcream operations is no investment at all. This is why meal ticket machines are so popular in Japan for food serving businesses: they eliminate the cash register all together, the staff can focus on serving customers instead of wasting valuable time babysitting customer payments.

A good cashless payment option in this case is NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey previewed at her Transact Conference Keynote. A PaymentsSource article covering that keynote makes clear that NFC Tag Apple Pay is built on two iOS 13 technologies: enhanced NFC tag read/write support in Core NFC, and Sign in with Apple ID.

The process leverages “Core NFC,” enabling an iPhone to scan an NFC tag that launches an app or a website, so users can skip the step of downloading an app when accessing a new service, Bailey explained.

“There’s no app requirement and no requirement to pre-sign up,” Bailey said, describing how Bird is using the technology in a pilot, with Apple Pay’s “pay load” automatically working to establish the account information to set up a one-time purchase. “It’s so much easier for new users to get into these services very quickly,”

For NFC Tag Apple Pay to succeed in Japan, it has be offered through major payment providers like J-Mups or Recruit AirPay (who already provide regular terminal based Apple Pay), who can package it together with their cloud backend and an app. From the softcream vendor side, all they need to do is sign up for NFC tag payment service via the setup app and receive a free NFC tag and logo. And that’s it, they are in business.

The concept is similar to the SmartPlate demo only more streamlined. It has to remove all payment involvement from the softcream side, just like a meal ticket machine. The only thing they need to do is look at a screen to confirm payment.

In lieu of Google Pay offering a similar NFC tag payment scheme, the payment provider could conceivably offer an Android app to include that platform but this breaks the Jennifer Bailey rule: no app, no sign-up. This rule is what sets NFC Tag Apple Pay apart from QR Code pay services who want you to sign up in an app to get your personal data. This rule will be the reason for the success of NFC Tag Apple Pay.

Can it change the Softcream Cashless Index? If Apple and their Japanese payment partners can replicate the hands off, no cash register, no brainer experience of Japanese meal ticket machines with NFC Tag Apple Pay, definitely yes. There’s only a year to go until the hot summer Tokyo Olympics but if the SCI average can make it to a 5, or more, that would be a huge tasty success and invitation to eat your way across Japan without a wallet.

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