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Visa, Wal-Mart roll out improvements to speed chip card transactions

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    A chip credit card in Philadelphia, as seen on June 10. Visa said it’s improving its smart chip-embedded cards, which have been the source of grumbling from businesses and customers forced to wait for transactions to go through.

CHICAGO » The added security is all well and good, but why does using a chip-enabled debit or credit card have to be so darn slow?

It’s a question impatient shoppers and retailers alike have been asking since the new chip card technology started rolling out widely last year.

Now Visa and Wal-Mart say they’ve come up with fixes to get rid of those irksome few extra seconds at the checkout.

Visa says a software update called “Quick Chip” will strip as many as 18 seconds from a typical checkout process using a chip card, while Wal-Mart says it has cut the time of chip card transactions in its stores by as much as 11 seconds.

Consumers at stores that have made the Quick Chip update will be able to dip and remove their cards in two seconds or less, without waiting for the transaction to be finalized, according to Visa. Shoppers who want to save even more time will be able to dip their cards while their items are still being rung up — a trick previously only possible with a traditional magnetic stripe cards.

Visa says the update will be offered free to payment processors, which will be able to decide if they want to charge merchants for the upgrade. Consumers won’t need to make any changes to the chip cards already in their wallets to use the faster service.

Stephanie Ericksen, Visa’s vice president of risk products, said surveys showed that transaction speed was an area where consumers and merchants wanted to see improvements and that the new system will allow “the consumer to put their card back into their wallet more quickly.”

While slow transactions can be irritating to consumers, they’re particularly troublesome for retailers who have to choose between seeing their revenues hurt by long checkout lines or employing more staff for additional checkout lines.

A study carried out by JDA Software Group for a national retailer with more than 4,000 stores found that the extra 8 to 12 seconds per checkout would have led to an additional $3.2 million in labor costs.

Marty Reynolds, vice president of retail solutions for JDA, which helps many national retailers plan their supply chains, said the speed of chip card transactions can vary significantly from store to store, depending on what equipment and network technologies the store is using.

Supermarkets and other stores where checkout staff “bag and scan” shopping carts full of items can make up the additional time by encouraging shoppers to dip their cards while their goods are scanned, but “that’s not an option at specialty stores where the typical customer only buys one or two items,” Reynolds said, adding that the fumble time it takes to line up a chip card with the slot at the checkout is inherently longer than with swipe technology.

But Wal-Mart, which was an early adopter of the chip card technology in November 2014, says it has already reduced transaction times for chip cards to the point they are comparable with traditional card transactions, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove.

Wal-Mart sped up the transactions by removing a prompt that asks the customer to confirm the amount charged, but has also seen speed increases “as customers have got used to the cards,” according to Hargrove, who added that the speed increases apply to all forms of chip cards, not just Visa cards.

Target, which was also an early adopter, says it worked to strip out unnecessary prompts before it launched its chip card service. Customers haven’t been complaining about the speed of chip card transactions, Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said.

Hailed as a more secure alternative to magnetic stripe cards, chip-enabled cards are accepted by around 20 percent of U.S. merchants, but have seen slower adoption than expected, according to analysts.

Since October, merchants who fail to make the switch to chip card technology have been held liable by the card companies for any fraudulent purchases made using magnetic stripe cards. Still, the $500 to $1,000 cost per terminal that merchants must buy to accept chip cards means some smaller retailers have been reluctant to make the switch.

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