Hip to Be Square


In addition to serving as a GPS, document reader, library, boom-box, camera and video arcade, your smart phone is now a cash register, if you want it be.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey launched Squareup.com earlier this year in an effort to make credit card transactions as user-friendly as sending an email. The service is catching on in Brooklyn amongst small retailers looking for a simple and cheap point-of-sale system, freelancers, and peripatatic merchants at pop-up shops and flea markets.

The free app, called Square, works on iPhones, Android phones and iPads and allows anyone to accept plastic payments for any good or service (barring illegal ones) once you sign up for a free account on Squareup.com. Immediately upon sign-up, the user can punch in a credit card number on the phone’s screen and let a customer sign for the transaction with a finger. Square sends the money within 24 hours, and the cash clears your bank account a few days later.

While it’s difficult to track who exactly is using Square on a personal level, Brooklyn-area small businesses are dipping their toes in the water. According to Square’s New York City representative, Buzz Anderson, several vendors at the Brooklyn Flea have already embraced the technology, as have at least a handful of freelancers and brick and mortar stores.

On a recent morning at WTF Espresso and Tea, a Fort Greene cafe known for its myriad brewing methods, baristas calculated customers’ checks on iPads equipped with the Square app. The cashier types in the price of your latte and muffin, takes your money, and then Square calculates the change. They take down your email address and mail you a receipt with a map to the store, what you bought, and how many times you’ve visited. They aren’t even using Square as a credit card reader–just as a cash register interface. The app, plus iPad to run the app on, was just cheaper and simpler for the small business to get up and running than a traditional point-of-sale (POS) software package. It’s not as sexy a use of Square as signing for your breakfast with your finger, but it’s still pretty cool.

WTF manager Bridey Recker reports that in addition to being cheaper, and cooler, Square has still other advantages over traditional POS systems. “As far as Square goes, it’s easy to navigate for a small business,” she said. “It’s also extremely easy to program in our specific sale items. If you are working with a big POS there’s a whole list of keycoding and it could take you 30 minutes to change a price. [Square] is instantaneous. Also, if I decide that I want to check up and see how business is doing before coming in, I can log in from home and see how many transactions were conducted.”

To open an account, there is no contract to sign and (save for your mobile device) no equipment to buy. As soon as a user signs up, Square automatically sends out a free card swiper, officially known as a dongle. The dongle plugs into the device’s audio jack and is small enough hang on a keychain. When using the swiper, each transaction costs 2.75 percent of the amount plus 15 cents (keying in cards costs a bit more). Compared to setting up a similar account on PayPal, which charges 2.9% plus .30 cents per transaction, it’s a decent discount, and unlike a merchant account, there are no monthly or set-up fees. For the rest of us, who maybe, say, want to sell kisses at a party for $5 a pop or sell the odd knitted item at a friend’s booth at the Brooklyn Flea, the cost is comparable to an ATM fee at the corner bodega—not exactly free, but then, convenience has its price.

Photographer Adam Lerner explained the appeal of Square to freelancers and independent artists, saying, “With my photography business people asked if I would accept credit cards, but it is kind of a big ordeal to get involved with a credit card company. Now, rather than having to have a formal business entity and having to fill out all those long forms and whatnot, you can be up and running in a very short amount of time.” He adds, “The device is so incredibly small that the convenience factor is pretty high.”

Square is a fledgling technology, so there may still be a few issues to work out, but the possibilities for expanding the scope of financial transactions is huge. As Jack Dorsey said when interviewed on CBS’ Early show, “We think it’s going to be used by babysitters, dogwalkers, hairdressers, flight instructors, piano teachers…anyone you can imagine paying with a credit card who you can’t today.”

Square may not be spearheading this revolution yet, but users already see the possibilities. “I think [Square] has great potential, even just due to the interest that people have in it when they come in,” said WTF’s Recker. “The automatic response is ‘Wow!’ ”

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