May 11, 2016

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The Miracle of Our Payments System. And Power Tools.

The Miracle of Our Payments System. And Power Tools.
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Sunday was a big day for the Kratovil family.  Not only was it a celebration of the World’s Greatest Mom for Kratovil Jr., but it also saw the acquisition of a long-sought item sure to change our lives for the better:  A pressure washer.

But this celebration was not all champagne, roses, P.S.I. and Honda engines.  In fact, some payments-related drama nearly derailed the entire affair.

To recap:  The power washer in question was available for pick-up at a particular store about an hour south of DC.  I’ve never shopped at this tool and equipment retailer before, so my excitement and anticipation as I loaded the SUV with the family and enough snacks to feed a small town was palpable (those who know me will understand).

Fast-forward: I-95 South misery successfully navigated, power washer selected and I’m standing in line to pay. Chase credit card swiped (because not only was their EMV chip reader not enabled, but the opening had been taped over to thwart any would-be “dippers”), waiting to sign and…wut?

Card declined?

Swipe it again and…rejected! But what was that?  Text message just came in. Probably the wife wondering why I’d eaten most of the Teddy Grahams the kid was now demanding.

Or could it be…sure enough, it was a text from Chase asking me to verify whether the 1) fairly large transaction 2) at a store I’d never been to 3) an hour from home was valid or not.  I responded with a “Yes, all good, it’s me. Don’t judge.” message, to which Chase immediately responded with instruction to process the transaction once more. Card swiped, transaction approved and a bright future of spotless driveways and dirt-free decks was, at long-last, mine.

This entire episode — including the initial two misfire swipes and ensuing moments of confusion before I saw the text message – took less than 45 seconds.

There are at least two key take-aways from my experience:

  • The online, real-time infrastructure of the U.S. payments system is a truly remarkable achievement. The chain of events I’ve described for my single, isolated transaction is staggering, especially when you consider it took place simultaneously with hundreds of thousands of other transactions during those precious seconds.
  • I clearly have the greatest wife in the world who, on her special day, gave me a few moments to indulge my insatiable desire to own more power tools.

It’s easy to take for granted the technology at work when a consumer makes an electronic payment.  With the ability of many financial institutions to monitor transactions in real-time and communicate with customers almost instantaneously, the U.S. payments system is able to combat fraud while keeping the system flowing and friction to a minimum.   If this graphic looks complicated, that’s because it is.  And the fact that all of this happens in a handful of seconds is all the more remarkable.