Many tourists who visit London are fascinated by the efficiency of the transport system, the grandeur of the buildings, or the resilience of the locals to a lack of sunlight.
On my recent trip to the United Kingdom, however, I was most impressed with a mobile app which allowed me to order food and drinks in a pub.
Immediately upon arriving, I was struck by the ubiquity of smartphone-based interaction, Wi-Fi hotspots, contactless payments, and other technological amenities which have yet to penetrate South Africa’s urban centres outside of certain shopping centres.
The perfect summary of this was the first night I spent in London when we visited a local pub for dinner.
At the suggestion of my local friends, we took a train to a Wetherspoon-owned pub. Wetherspoon is a UK company which owns pubs and hotels, with each of its properties operating under their own name.
Upon finding a table, I was prepared to brave the queues at the bar (many pubs in England have no table service – you must order food and drinks at the bar) before my friend chimed in with some unexpected advice:
“Don’t queue at the bar, it’s so much easier if you order using the app.”
Using the app
I’m no stranger to ordering food on my phone – I open Uber Eats more than my fridge – but it seemed counterproductive to order food through an app while at the venue where the food is made.
I was curious, however, and promptly downloaded the Wetherspoon app using the pub’s Wi-Fi.
The app allows you to register in a matter of seconds and after entering your credit card details, you are ready to order.
Each table at the pub had a number affixed to it, and by entering this into the app and choosing from the selection of food and drinks on the menu, I was able to place my order in just a few taps.
In the time it had taken the app-less patrons to reach the bar and order, I had already received my burger and beer delivered to my table without speaking to any service staff.
Ups and downs
While it sounds great, the app is not without problems; I occasionally encountered hazards presented by a spotty mobile data connection and a stubbornly secure South African bank card.
Many South African banks have a two-factor authentication option which requires you to enter an OTP when completing an international online transaction, and the Wetherspoon app is no exception.
This was usually fine when I was connected to the pub’s Wi-Fi or in an area with good reception, but the occasional Wetherspoon pub in areas with flaky reception was a problem.
Once I was forced to walk outside the pub to place my order on the app. The next time this happened, I simply gave up and joined the queue to order from an actual person.
On the whole, however, the app provided a superior experience to the conventional ordering system.
The menu was detailed and provided specific pricing for each item. Payment also occurred instantly, which meant that once we were done, we could leave without waiting for a physical bill.
Apps and taps
This pub experience surmised my entire payment experience in London.
Everything was one app or one tap away, and this made everything so much easier to access and pay for.
Travelling on the London Underground is as simple as tapping your NFC-enabled bank card on the terminals at entry and exit gates – no ticket or Oyster Card needed (contactless bank cards are treated the same way as Oyster cards by TFL).
The same is true for ferries on the Thames, tickets to museums, and even tipping buskers and other street performers.
Upon arriving in London I had no cash and was entirely prepared to draw some when necessary. This need never arose, however, as every place we visited accepted card payments.
If anything, there were a number of places which expressly did not accept cash, forcing patrons to pay on their card or through Google, Samsung, or Apple Pay.
This is certainly a far cry from South Africa’s payment infrastructure, where many POS terminals still do not support contactless payments.
However, my experience in London left me excited for the future accessibility of South African goods and services as the country continues its migration to digital payments like Snapscan and Zapper.