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Apple Pay Review: The Re/code Bi-Coastal Team Test

Apple Pay worked smoothly and quickly in all but a very few instances. But the number of physical and online stores that accept it at launch is still very small.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Amid all the products Apple introduced this fall, the most impactful might be one that isn’t a physical product at all: Apple Pay. It’s a service that allows you to load digital versions of your credit cards into Apple’s latest devices, and pay for goods with them wirelessly, using a short-range technology called NFC.

So, does it work? To find out, your four-person Re/code Reviews team spent most of the week doing the arduous work of shopping, on both coasts. We bought everything from electronics to food to makeup — with digital versions of our everyday credit cards stored on the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Our overall conclusion: Apple Pay worked smoothly and quickly in all but a very few instances. But the number of physical and online stores that accept it at launch is still very small. Plus, some common things slow it down, like the need for signatures and debit-card PINs in some stores, its lack of support for loyalty cards, and cashier confusion. So it’s far from a complete replacement for your wallet and credit card, at least not yet.

Apple isn’t the first company to try this — Google, for instance, tried and failed. But, as with past Apple hits, the company thinks that it will be the one to make something that it didn’t invent actually take off.

One big reason: Apple already has hundreds of millions of credit cards from its iTunes customers, and these can be quickly and easily added to Apple Pay, in most cases. You can add others by just taking a picture of the card with your iPhone and typing in the card’s security code.

Another reason: Unlike some others who’ve tried, Apple is vowing never to store your card information or payment history in the cloud, or even collect it. And Apple Pay never even transmits your real credit card number to the payment terminal. It uses a one-time code.

But what’s it like to use it? Read on for our mini-reviews:

Katie Boehret, Washington, D.C.

I can’t remember the last time I was excited to spend money, but the digital convenience of Apple Pay made it feel more like using Monopoly money. I never held a credit card or cash to buy something; instead, I gleefully pressed my thumb to the iPhone to verify purchases, and felt a vibrating confirmation signal. I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but for now, it has a major fun factor.

I initially had trouble adding my credit card to Apple Pay — the same Citibank card that has been in my iTunes account for years. A spokeswoman for Apple said Citibank’s servers initially had issues, but said that those are resolved. I later manually added the card, in addition to my debit card.

But I couldn’t avoid using my wallet.

At CVS, I bought two tubes of mascara with Apple Pay, in order to use my CVS loyalty card to get a $5 rebate on L’Oreal eye makeup. At the self-checkout register, I was prompted to swipe my loyalty card to get this deal, and I keep this card in my wallet. After the purchase, CVS printed its $5 coupon on a paper receipt, which I promptly stuck in — where else? — my wallet.

A wireless payment terminal at Walgreen’s, compatible with Apple Pay
A wireless payment terminal at Walgreen’s, compatible with Apple Pay

At a McDonald’s drive-through, the cashier wasn’t sure what I meant when I asked to use Apple Pay to buy two hot fudge sundaes. I could see the NFC terminal right inside the window where he stood, and I even encouraged him to hold my phone up to it, but he refused. No one should have to hand over a phone, anyway; McDonald’s should have had an NFC reader ready for me to use. I pulled out my wallet and paid with a retro-feeling $5 bill.

I also tried Apple Pay for in-app purchasing within the Groupon app on my iPhone 6. Once Apple Pay is set up on your phone, it’s automatically added to your Groupon account as one option for payment. But when I clicked to buy a $69 housecleaning service, I was slowed down by having to enter my billing address. Compared to a normal Groupon buying experience — using my already-added credit card — this took longer.

Whole Foods and Harris Teeter grocery stores were one-step successes with Apple Pay, but, again, I pulled out my old-fashioned wallet to use my rewards cards at these stores. Apple hopes to add loyalty cards to Apple Pay in the future.

Bonnie Cha, San Francisco Bay Area

The setup process went pretty well. In addition to the Bank of America card I had on file for iTunes, I added an American Express card and a Citibank Visa using the iPhone’s camera. The Citibank card required extra verification, and I was given the option of getting a code via text or phone call. I chose the former, and everything worked with no problem.

I did run into one issue with a Virgin America Visa, however. Unlike most cards, all the numbers and expiration date are printed on the card vertically rather than horizontally, and the iPhone’s camera wasn’t able to read them. So I entered the information manually, but then got a message saying that Apple Pay did not support the card at this time. Oh well, time to go shopping!

The first store where I tried to use Apple Pay was Macy’s. I held up the iPhone 6 Plus, and Passbook opened. I selected my American Express card, put my fingerprint to Touch ID and … nothing. I tried it several more times, and my exchange with the salesperson went something like this:

“Did that go through?”

“No.”

“How about now?”

“No.”

“Now?”

“No.”

So I went to another department at Macy’s. This time it worked, and the salesperson did a little celebratory dance.

 Your Staples order has been placed.
Your Staples order has been placed.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

I also had success using Apple Pay at Lady Foot Locker, Bloomingdale’s, Whole Foods, Radio Shack, Walgreen’s and McDonald’s. But the latter involved an awkward experience where the drive-through cashier had to pull the wired pay terminal up to the window so I could hold my iPhone up to it. Surely, there’s a better way!

I also visited some stores that weren’t listed as Apple Pay launch partners, and was shut down.

Overall though, I was pleasantly surprised with the seamless experience of Apple Pay. Do I think it’s any more convenient than taking out my wallet and swiping a card? Not really, especially since I still had to enter my PIN or sign when using my debit card. But I do like having the option, and as more of my favorite stores support Apple Pay, the more apt I’d be to use it.

Lauren Goode, San Francisco Bay Area

Reports of the wallet’s death are greatly exaggerated. I’ve come to this conclusion after four days of using Apple Pay to buy things.

It’s not that Apple Pay didn’t work for me — quite the opposite. I had success in five out of my six purchasing attempts, and the last hiccup ended up being resolved. But those payments all occurred in places where I was expecting Apple Pay to work. At the stops I might normally make in my everyday life, Apple Pay often wasn’t accepted.

I tested Apple Pay in San Francisco and in Palo Alto, which is just a dozen miles from Apple’s headquarters. Apple Pay worked for me, without incident, in CVS Pharmacy, Whole Foods, Subway and McDonald’s. I had an Egg McMuffin for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many years. It was delicious.

At Whole Foods I still had to enter the PIN code for my debit card, but otherwise Apple Pay worked fine.

What’s more notable is that in three out of four stores, the cashiers weren’t surprised by my attempts to pay with an iPhone 6. This was a very different experience from my trials with Google Wallet last year, when cashiers seemed dubious.

The biggest glitch I encountered was with in-app purchasing. Houzz, for some reason, didn’t display the Apple Pay option at first, and Apple couldn’t really explain it. Eventually, the option appeared in the app, and I bought a Christmas tree ornament.

Another annoyance for me was that I couldn’t see a list of my most recent purchases within the Apple Pay app, because Apple Pay won’t show purchases made with debit cards. So I had to log into my bank account to see that purchases were going through properly.

Apple Pay promotion at Whole Foods
Apple Pay promotion at Whole Foods

Also, my bank required phone calls for verification when I was first setting up my cards in Apple Pay. Each of these calls took no longer than 10 minutes, and I’m actually glad that the extra security layer was there.

But more importantly, the footprint for Apple Pay — and other NFC payment options — isn’t huge yet. So a pretty standard day for me might involve a stop at the local coffee shop (no Apple Pay), a stop at the gas station (no Apple Pay) or a train ticket to SF (no Apple Pay), lunch (maybe Apple Pay), and an errand like a trip to a dry cleaner or cobbler (no Apple Pay).

In short, I like using Apple Pay to pay, but I’m definitely not ditching my wallet yet.

Walt Mossberg, Washington, D.C., Area

I generally regard shopping as drudgery, but I spent a lot of time in stores this week, testing Apple Pay, using digital versions of all three major credit cards — MasterCard, Visa and American Express. I even dragged myself to my least favorite shopping place — the local mall.

My results: Apple Pay worked, easily and well, in all but one of the stores Apple said it would. Bonus: It also worked perfectly at one major store that Apple didn’t list as a partner: CVS.

I also tried Apple Pay at two online shopping sites, and they both worked well with just a touch of my finger on the phone’s Touch ID fingerprint reader.

I was able to buy everything from a bottle of mouthwash at CVS to a sweater at Macy’s, an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s and a keyboard at the Staples online site.

And each of the three major credit cards I tested worked just as easily as the others. Card setup was quick and simple. Only one bank asked for extra verification, and that was a PIN number sent to me in seconds.

My sole failure was at Subway, the sandwich shop that Apple lists as a launch partner. Neither of the two branches I tried had the right kind of payment terminal needed for Apple Pay.

A Subway spokesman said: “Apple Pay is available in 95 percent of our restaurants with the rest to follow shortly.”

My most unusual experience was at a Radio Shack store, where the manager insisted that Apple Pay wouldn’t work, but reluctantly let me try it. I easily bought a $9 wall charger using a terminal originally meant for a competitor, Google Wallet.

All in all, Apple Pay worked just fine for me at Macy’s, Walgreens, CVS, Radio Shack, McDonald’s, the Apple Store (natch) and the Staples and Apple online stores.

 Apple Pay shows recent purchases you’ve made with credit cards, but not debit cards.
Apple Pay shows recent purchases you’ve made with credit cards, but not debit cards.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

But, like my colleagues, I quickly discovered that lots of the places I visit most often aren’t set up to take Apple Pay. These include my local grocery store, pizza place and dry cleaner.

So I still had to dig out my wallet and credit card for most payments.

And there was one other irritant. Even where Apple Pay was accepted, its speediness was compromised by the need to sign for purchases over a certain amount, just like with a plastic card. This even happened, ironically, at Apple’s own retail store (though Apple just informed me this requirement is set to disappear by today for people using Apple Pay).

If more merchants buy the right payment gear and agree to accept Apple Pay, I’ll be a happier shopper.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.