Coachella Takes Payment Cards – Mostly

by Sam Levitt on April 22, 2016

in Apple, Card Payments, Card Technology, Cash Payments, NFC, Square

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I spent the weekend in Indio, California at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival (often referred to as the “Modern Day Woodstock” for you Boomers). Over the few weeks leading up to the event, Square and Apple advertised quite a bit about how every single vendor on the festival grounds would have a new contactless Square reader to accept Apple Pay and payment cards.

In the past at Coachella, paying for a bottle of water or a slice of pizza could only be done with cash. The ATMs at the festival grounds were hard to find, charged high fees, and often broke down. A news release from Square a couple of weeks ago explained that there was going to be no reason to bring any cash to the festival or even a wallet. Hearing such news is a dream come true for festival goers who want to keep track of as few personal belongings as possible.

For the first half of Friday, I was able to easily buy anything I wanted using my chip-enabled credit card and it was a painless process. I simply asked for a bottle of water and the seller took my card and proceeded to insert it into the EMV slot. I chose to abstain from using Apple Pay because smartphone battery life is an extremely precious commodity at the festival—which makes me wonder how those relying on the NFC“Pays”alone got along.

The vendors had their staff swipe or insert the cards, rather than having us do it ourselves, because many people still get confused over when to swipe or dip. With over one hundred thousand people attending this festival, even the smallest hold-up can cost a lot in time and money. Beyond that bottle of water, I also purchased chicken strips and a beer with ease that afternoon.

By early evening on Friday, however, some vendors began stating that the “system was down” and they could no longer accept cards – only cash. I asked a few more of those nearby vendors throughout the day and was met with the same issue. By Saturday and Sunday, I had given up asking altogether and simply came with cash on hand.

Driving home with friends on Monday morning, I asked how they paid for food and beverages throughout the weekend. They all responded that they used their cards whenever they could, but were met with some resistance by certain vendors here and there.

Now, none of my friends are nearly as fascinated by the payments industry as I am, so they were not paying (no pun intended) very close attention. But after digging a little deeper, we realized that we heard “the Square system was down” excuse at only the small tents that exclusively sold bottled water. Those tents get a tremendous amount of traffic, with people of all ages pushing and shoving to get to the front (it is very hot out there!)  I imagine those vendors all agreed to abandon the Square readers in order to boost throughput. I highly doubt that there were actual technical difficulties at just those tents while all the others selling food, beer or merchandise were unaffected. Since these tents sold only one product at one price, it is much faster to collect cash $2 at a time because, let’s be honest, dipping an EMV card can be a tad slow.

All in all, Coachella and Square teamed up to offer a much easier payment experience than in the past. Although I ended up using cash the rest of the weekend at all vendors – water or not – many people throughout the festival grounds were able to buy their meals, merchandise or beer with their cards.

And despite having to carry cash in my pockets, I was still able to enjoy some of the best acts of the weekend—from hard-hitting rapper Ice Cube to soft-spoken singer BORNS to DJ duo Disclosure. Who knows what incredible new artists and different forms of payment acceptance will be there next year!

 

 

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