Bitcoin In the Real World: Brick & Mortar

Bitcoin In the Real World: Brick & Mortar

Somewhere nestled in the question of “What should a Bitcoin be worth?”  Is the question of whether it is or can be an actual currency.  With this in mind I wanted to do a several post series on how Bitcoin is (and isn’t) like a currency today.  This is the fourth part of an envisioned 6 in this series (numbers 1,2, and 5 are links):

  1. Bitcoin in the Real World: A Primer On The Rules
  2. Bitcoin as Money: Buying Things Online
  3. Bitcoin as Money: Buying Things in Person
  4. Bitcoin as Money: Giving Bitcoin to a Person
  5. Bitcoin as Money: Visiting an ATM
  6. Bitcoin as Money: Where Do We Go From Here?

Late last year when I was researching writing these articles, I assumed that this article was going to be the easiest one.  I had read that there were Subways allowing you to use Bitcoin, so I thought I’d just go down the street and grab a sandwich.  Turns out it was only one Subway.  In fact, I couldn’t find a single place in Manhattan that I was sure would sell me a sandwich.  Finally, three months later, I happened in to a store where I actually wanted to spend some Bitcoin.  Ironically, it was in Historic Ybor (a neighborhood in Tampa known for old Cuban and Italian immigrant-owned stores/restaurants) and was just a few feet from where the cigars I purchased were being hand-rolled.

How Did Using Bitcoin Go?

Honestly, not that smoothly.  The store, like most merchants, these guys had downloaded an app for a tablet and were using that to process transactions.  They were using CoinBox, but there are a whole bunch of Point of Sale Systems and the very popular system Square is even starting to allow it.  Like many merchants who raced to put up “Accepting Bitcoin” signs, the uptake has been kind of slow.  They have done about a dozen Bitcoin transactions in the 3 months they’ve been accepting it.  Due to the salesman’s lack of experience, it wasn’t as straight-forward as it probably should have been.

To begin with the app froze twice on what appeared to be a pretty old tablet.  When we finally got it running, he generated a barcode for his wallet, I scanned it with mine and typed in the $140 that a box of cigars cost.  Coinbox rejected the transaction because the store was over some unspecified limit.  After several trials we arrived at putting $70 in Bitcoin and $70 on my credit card.  This appeared to be below the limit and got a confirmation screen.  At this point we were 75% sure the transaction was processed, but it still read “Canceled” on his tablet.  CoinBox did not have an intuitive way to see it, but my Wallet Software was clear.  In the end, I had to leave my contact information so I could pay the other $70 if for some reason it wasn’t processed.

So Is The World Changing?

Definitely not.  My experience using a Bitcoin ATM in a foreign country had been a great one (read about it here).  That transaction was actually easier than ones in the traditional banking sector might have been.  Unfortunately, buying things in real life is definitely not as easy.  There are only a handful of places that offer Bitcoin transactions and I’ve discovered that even the ones who have it don’t always know how to use it well.  While I suppose a merchant who could do ALL their transactions in bitcoin might get a slightly lower fee structure than one that accepts credit cards, there there are still the complex tax implications (discussed here) and exposure to exchange rates.  All in all, I can’t imagine seeing much of an uptick in accepting Bitcoin at brick and mortar shops any time soon.