Here’s how to navigate touch-free in-store payment methods during coronavirus and beyond.

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In Spring 2020, shopping in-store has become a rather harrowing experience. Keep your distance from one another. Mind the surfaces you touch—especially your own face. Once you get all the items you need, you face the normally innocent decision about how to pay for your purchase.

Unlike before, you wish to do so with minimal contact with another surface. The overall goal is to avoid cash transactions at all costs. Therefore, you settle on using your credit or debit card. Inserting or swiping the card then subsequently wiping it down is an imperfect solution.

A better option could be one of the three completely touch-free ways to pay. These three methods rely on either your smartphone (which you should routinely clean before, during and after a pandemic) or, for a select group of consumers, contactless credit cards.

Here are the basics of how to navigate touch-free payment methods.

“Tap-to-Pay” with Your Smartphone or Contactless Credit Card

The most universally available touch-free payment option is “tap-to-pay” with either your smartphone or a contactless credit card. Tap-to-pay uses either near field communication (NFC) or magnetic secure transmission (MST). NFC is the payment method that relates to the logo of the four little waves that you may see on a payment terminal. Apple PayGoogle Pay and contactless credit cards all use NFC technology to communicate payment to the store terminal.

MST is a technology currently only on Samsung Pay (which also supports NFC) where your smartphone mimics the act of swiping your credit card on a terminal that does not support NFC. Although Samsung Pay can be used at more locations than the NFC-only payment methods, neither technology is guaranteed to work every time you see a compatible payment terminal. However, both options provide a barrier between you and the payment terminal.

To use the app versions of tap-to-pay (Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay), begin with enabling the apps. You can add your eligible credit cards, loyalty cards and gift cards to the respective apps. The credit cards are tokenized to a level of security similar to that of the chip-and-PIN security of your credit card.

Each credit card in the app has a different credit card number than your actual card number. Some loyalty cards generate a barcode that looks like the one on your physical membership card that can be scanned with a store’s hand scanner. The same can be said for some gift cards.

To pay, place your smartphone or contactless credit card within a couple of inches of the payment terminal where you see the “payment waves”  until you hear a beep and/or see a check mark come on the screen.

You can set an additional level of security, if you wish, in the app settings. If you do so, you have to enter a PIN or use biometric recognition to authorize payment.

To use MST payments on Samsung Pay, you similarly place your smartphone within a couple of inches of the payment terminal (expert tip—slowly mimic the actual swiping of your credit card to find the precise spot where you hear the confirmation beep).

Paying with the Store Mobile App

Some stores do not yet offer “tap-to-pay” payment capabilities. Even essential businesses open during the coronavirus pandemic, including retailers such as Walmart and gas stations, do not universally offer “tap-to-pay” payment capabilities. Fear not, other options do exist.

Walmart and some gas stations do offer payment via their mobile applications. At least one gas station brand, Pennsylvania-based Sheetz, offers contactless payment options at the fuel pump across the majority of their locations. Neither Sheetz nor their competitor Wawa offer payments for fuel in their respective apps. However, both do offer mobile payments for in-store food and beverage purchases.

Many other gas stations offer payments for fuel purchases via their mobile apps at most, but not necessarily all, locations.  Some gas stations that offer mobile payment include ExxonMobil (Rewards+)Shell (works in conjunction with Fuel Rewards account/app), BP (BPme)Sunoco76Chevron.

To use these apps, download the app, create an account and load a credit card to your account—all of which you can do in the comforts of your own home. When you go to the pump, open the app for the system to geo-locate your location (make sure you allow for location permissions). Fair warning: not all stations are equipped for these apps yet. You can review which stations are eligible for mobile payments in the app prior to choosing a gas station to visit.

To begin a purchase, select the pump you have chosen in the app. Some apps will ask for you to confirm the pump location by scanning a QR code on the pump or entering a PIN. Finally, authorize your credit card in the app. Once the transaction is approved, you will have 30 to 45 seconds to begin fueling. At the end of the purchase, you do not need to get a receipt. Purchase records will be available in the app.

This process can be a little cumbersome and still requires some touch points with the fuel pump itself. However, you do not need to swipe your credit card—which makes paying via app a far more secure purchase method, too.

These apps also all participate in proprietary rewards to make choosing mobile payments more enticing. As an added bonus for residents in states that do not permit people from fueling their own cars (New Jersey and Oregon) as well as all full service stations elsewhere, you do not have to leave your car at all to purchase gas.

At stores like Walmart, which has Walmart Pay in its app, you can use the app as the payment method in-store. For all of these apps, the initiation process is the same: download the app and create an account with the respective merchant. Typically, you either place your phone in front of the QR reader or use a hand scanner to read the barcode/QR code on your phone.

This payment system is the same for many other businesses, especially restaurants. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts (DD Perks app) are popular national chains that offer mobile app payment. In the New York City area, outlets like The Little BeetGregory’s Coffee and Pret A Manger all offer mobile payments via a QR code you can use to pay when you pick up your order.

Paying with an E-Gift Card from a Third-Party App

Even if there are no contactless payments or mobile payments available, you’re not completely out of luck. Some third-party apps allow you to purchase an e-gift card for select retailers that can be used at the store. Two of these apps are Ibotta (through its Pay with Ibotta platform) and United Airlines’ MileagePlus X.

Merchants such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart are available on the Pay with Ibotta platform. Some restaurants are also available including Starbucks and Applebee’s. MileagePlus X has a much wider catalog that includes more retail stores and restaurants in addition to nearly all of the Pay with Ibotta merchants.

To use Pay with Ibotta, download the Ibotta app, create an account and load a credit card (or connect to Apple Pay or Google Pay). Make sure you also have a PayPal or Venmo account in order to receive your bonuses.

When you want to checkout with Pay with Ibotta, locate the store in the Pay with Ibotta platform, enter the purchase amount (including taxes and fees), and confirm the purchase amount. Afterwards, a barcode or QR code appears that can be scanned at the register or with a hand scanner.

United Airlines’ MileagePlusX app is similar to Pay with Ibotta. To be eligible for this app, you have to first create a (free) United MileagePlus frequent flyer account. After you create your account and download the app, your saved credit cards are available to use to make purchases. Otherwise, similar principles apply to use the app as pay with Ibotta.

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