In an otherwise ordinary branch of KFC, in an otherwise ordinary city in China, a revolution has begun. Hangzhou’s outlet of the famous fried chicken brand recently partnered with Alibaba to enable customers to pay for their meals with their face. In one fell swoop, we’ve moved from "service with a smile" to "paying with a smile".
This has profound implications for all of us, whatever the inevitable naysaying technophobes think of the technology.
Its standout attribute is that it doesn’t require you to even take your smartphone out of your pocket. As long as customers are registered with Alipay, all you need is your literal self to buy food. Well, there’s one small pain point – it requires you to enter your email address for additional verification – which stops this from being truly revolutionary in its own right. However, it’s still the small step for man that prefaces the inevitable giant leap for humankind, given that Apple is throwing its hat into the ring by embedding Face ID technology in the iPhone X.
Two tech titans adding genuine utility to facial recognition, which has often felt gimmicky in previous iterations, represents an important shift in how we pay for things. It’s only been three years since Apple Pay enabled us to pay for things in apps and online with just our fingerprints, and the likely fast rate of adoption for this tech means payments are about to get even simpler. However, despite broad excitement for Face ID and its implications, there are some reservations.
Critics point to two main issues with facial recognition payments; firstly, that it’s open to fraud and secondly that it doesn’t work well enough to make it a more efficient process than a simple tap. On the first count, it looks clear that the tech has evolved to counter the threat of fraud. The iPhone X’s camera beams some 30,000 invisible dots to cover and read each user’s face, and Apple insists that tricking the technology would be a "one in a million" instance.
Don’t forget that app payments themselves were initially viewed as insecure, despite mobile payments being far more secure than most other forms of payment. On the second front, whilst there was that awkward moment at Apple’s unveiling of its new iPhones where Face ID didn’t work, that was allegedly down to human error and in ridding the iPhone of a home button – and therefore Touch ID – Apple is showing enormous faith in its own ability to replace touch with sight.
Why should brands and business care? Simply put, retail just got a lot more seamless. We’ve all seen the considerable move to mobile as e-commerce shifts to m-commerce, but still, some mobile experiences have lagged behind, offering poor UX and slow payments – which can really damage a brands’ credibility with users and turn away loyal customers for good. The ability to pay with just a glance at your phone even further removes pain from the process. Businesses that embrace this will see a surge in people engaging with their apps and buying what they want, when they want to, even on the move.
Looking further ahead it could even conceivably change the in-store experience, as checkouts give way to more space for people to interact with products they like, or try on a new outfit, and then buy with just a look at their phone via the company’s app. What Amazon is doing in Seattle with Amazon Go – the seamless no-checkout supermarket – could genuinely be the new face of retail; far sooner than we thought.
Likewise, waiting for the bill while getting cross at the waiting staff could soon be a thing of the past. If it’s as simple as looking down at your phone once you’ve had dessert and walking out, it could be the tipping point for mass adoption of QSR apps which have long enabled you to do the same with a touch. If consumers get behind the technology, its potential iterations are boundless.
The opportunity is clear.
The naysayers are missing the point.
And the latest revolution in payments is well underway.
Ryan Farley is chief executive of Judopay