Pay at the Table
By David Dorf on Apr 12, 2009
I visited Legal Seafood in Boston last week, and they used "pay at the table." Instead of handing over my credit card, they brought the terminal to me. This particular model, from Ingenico, used 802.11b wireless networking to transmit back to a base station, which in turn connected to the network. That's the first time I've seen that technology used in the US, although I've used it in Europe lots.
Ten years ago I worked on a similar system from Schlumberger, a French company that specialized in smart cards (amoung lots of other things). Our product line was called MagIC, which supported magnetic stripe cards as well as integrated circuit cards (i.e. smart cards). I thought it was a clever name. The MagIC series ran an embedded real-time operating system, an application manager, and one or more applications. (The CPU was an 8088!) When a card was swiped or inserted, the application manager determined which application was best to process the transaction. That way you could run separate applications for debit, credit, stored value, loyalty, etc.
After working on various smart card projects in the US, I finally gave up. The US networks (phone and internet) are just too efficient and cheap to worry about procesing transactions offline, which is one of the main cases for smart cards. They are great for vending, which makes them popular on campuses like universities, resorts, and ships. But they will never take off as general purpose payments in the US, although they continue to be popular in Europe and Asia.
Back to Legal Seafood. The "pay at the table" payment allows restaurants to simplify payment. Instead of running the credit card for the meal then adding the tip in a second transaction, its all done in a single transaction. This is one less trip for the waiter, skips the need for keying tips into the terminal, and saves embarassment when a card is over limit. Plus if the terminal is also certified as a PIN pad, it can accept debit cards too. I hope other restaurants give it try.