Square, the iPhone Credit Card Machine, Goes Mainstream


I first saw Square's product when Gizmodo's Mat Honan whipped one out at a dinner in San Francisco to help us split a check. Here's how it worked: he ran my credit card through a tiny plastic doohickey (technical term) that attached to his phone. We entered the amount I owed for the pizza, inflated by the price of a couple Belgian beers, and voila, I'd paid him with a credit card.  It was a subtly impressive demonstration of the alternative payment system's appeal to the tech-savvy. The whole thing was slick and easy, and Square's pricing -- a flat 2.75 percent of transactions -- seemed a small enough price to pay for the convenience of the service.

small_square.jpgBut I wondered if it had mainstream appeal. We were on Valencia Street, after all, the epicenter of the Bay's hipster world, and both of us worked (at the time) for Wired.  Would people and businesses whose lives didn't revolve around technology toss away their old-school credit card machines? It didn't seem likely.

Over the last few months, I started to notice Square doohickeys popping up all along eastern seaboard. Coffee shops are using them. Food trucks (@lobstertruckdc, anyone?) are using them. Boutiques are using them. Where hipsters lurk, Square abounds. But what about everywhere else?

I asked Square to make me a map of their transactions to see where they had users. The map you see at the top of the page shows one hour of transaction volume on a Friday afternoon. The size of the bubble represents the volume of the transactions while the different colors indicate the types of users that Square has.

This map is good news for Square, which recently took in a $100 million venture investment and put Larry Summers (yes, that Larry Summers) on its board. Just about every major city and plenty of smaller places have someone using the device. I was particularly to see that the whole southeast is blanketed with Square users.

How were all these people finding out about it? I called up a few customers, one of whom I got a hold of through Square and others through Twitter.

The first business I talked with was The Tree Man nursery in Paso Robles, which is a small city north of San Luis Obispo in central California. Anthony Overturf answered the phone with a laidback vibe that made me quake with nostalgia for the West Coast. I asked him how and why the nursery made the switch to Square. It turns out that local farmers converted the nursery's owner after their standard machine broke.

"Back in the rainy season, we cover our credit card machine with plastic, but the wind blew the plastic off and the rain hit the credit card machine and we were out a credit card machine," Overturf said. "We were in the process of ordering one and we went to the Farmer's market of all places and all the guys there were using them."

Overturf said it was actually an easy decision because the Square hardware was free and the cut that Square takes was less than they'd paid before. Overturf likes the machine, particularly because it allows him to move around the nursery and make sales on the spot.

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