If you run your fingers across your credit card, you’ll likely feel a series of useless bumps. The account number and your name are raised up, a relic dating to a time when merchants had to break out a clunky machine and carbon paper to complete a transaction, as Louie CK explained in his classic rant on under-appreciating advances in technology:
Those raised characters serve no purpose in a world of electronic payments, where merchants can swipe the magnetic strip on your card.
Eventually the entire credit card will become a relic as our smartphones process mobile payments in a seamless fashion. We’re already seeing the first examples of this, most notably with Uber, the ride service that automatically charges a user’s credit card when a trip ends.
Cover, a New York-based start-up, wants to bring that same ease of payment to the restaurant experience.
“Before credit cards, you might have an account and they know you and you might pay at the end of the month. Credit cards brought this weird transaction to the end that we all now have Stockholm Syndrome about,” Cover founder Andrew Cove told me.
He envisions a world with more integrated payment experiences, where the transaction is almost invisible.
“You walk into a restaurant, you sit down and eat and you leave. We’re almost at a point where that is what happens. That to us is really what the payment experience should be like,” Cove said.
I tried Cover earlier this month at a New York restaurant and found it to be incredibly liberating and a pleasure to use. After sitting down I told my server I’d be paying with Cover, and gave my name. The Cover app guessed that I was at the restaurant, which I confirmed on my smartphone. When I was done eating I just left. There was no tedious wait for the check, no need to calculate a tip or make sure I signed the merchant copy of the receipt instead of the customer copy.
By the time I’d walked a couple blocks from the restaurant my phone buzzed with an e-mail including a receipt for the transaction. A tip was automatically included based on a percentage I’d set as my default.
While it’s easy to see the appeal of Cover, you’ll likely have to wait to use it. For now, Cover is available in 85 restaurants in New York City and 20 restaurants in San Francisco. Cove told me he wants his 10-person staff to focus on those cities before branching out elsewhere.
For those who can use Cover, the app can be downloaded for iOS and Android. Once customers have filled out basic information including their credit card data, they’re ready to pay for meals without ever pulling out cash or a credit card. For large parties, tabs can be split up.
Cover has mounted Estimote beacons in a handful of restaurants to improve the experience. When a customer with the Cover app enters a participating restaurant, the beacons recognize the presence of a user’s smartphone, and he or she receives a push notification reminding him or her of the chance to pay with Cover. That way, restaurant-goers don’t have to remember whether they can use Cover in a given location. Cove can foresee the location that data beacons provide doing even more to enhance the dining experience down the road.
“We’re still very much in the early days of what we can do with smartphones and wearables and sensors. We’re moving toward almost a guardian-angel type thing where technology is moving obstacles out of your way. Payments is the one we liked getting rid of,” Cove said.
Whether Cover can successfully scale up and become the Uber of restaurant payments remains to be seen. But it’s hard to imagine the app or one like it not catching on.