We tried Howler – which is now the only way you can buy drinks at many South African events
- Howler is quickly emerging as the only payment method allowed at many South African events.
- It claims to be a safer, easier, faster and more secure way to purchase food and drink.
- We gave it a try at a recent cricket match – and we understand why it is facing criticism.
Howler has emerged up as the de facto payment method at South Africa’s major festivals and sporting events. It appeared quietly at small festivals a few years ago, but is now the only way to pay for alcohol at dozens of concerts, sporting events, festivals, and expos. Many of these venues no longer accept any other form of payment, forcing users to abide by Howler's terms and conditions, and pay its fees.
The company has positioned itself between event vendors and consumers, by forcing them to purchase event-specific contact-less smart cards. These cards are the only way to purchase alcohol, and often food, at many of the country’s leading events.
According to Howler’s website, they’re making it safer, easier, faster, and more secure for event-goers to purchase food and drink from vendors. But there’s been a steady grumbling about the system since its launch two years ago.
Most complaints focus on the involuntary cost of purchasing cards, cash-out times, expiry dates, the plastic waste generated by single-event cards, and a general lack of transaction transparency with no realtime receipts available.
Many also complain that Howler has introduced an unnecessary step in the process, when apps and physical banks all offer similar products.
Others have sang the praises of the cashless system, saying it has reduced queue time at big events.
For Howler and event organisers the benefits are clear. They’ve designed the system to reduce cash points, ease the transaction process by accepting only one payment method at high traffic locations, and presumably use it as a way to generate additional revenue.
We put Howler to the test
Recently, we went to watch cricket in Newlands and found that the system does indeed seem to streamline the payment process.
Card purchasing stations were numerous and easy to locate. They had clear signage and staff were wearing Howler identity cards. The process of purchasing the cards and loading them with prepaid credit from a bank card was quick and easy.
It would be easy to see this as an automated process with vending machines doing away with humans, but for now it’s labour intensive.
There were almost no lines at these stations, although the mediocre match attendance may have had an impact on this. The staff member we dealt with was efficient and knowledgable, and willing to answer any questions we had about the system.
Staff were also clearly informing all in the queue that the cards were for beverages only; food still operates on a cash basis.
With no alcohol price list available at the card purchase booth, and a line forming behind us, we were forced to thumb-suck an amount of R200 for the initial deposit onto the card.
They deducted R10 for the privilege of using the system, leaving us with R190 to spend on beer, wine, or cider.
Queues for the bars were relatively short. Most wait times to purchase a drink were less than ten minutes, although this again may have had something to do with the poor attendance. The queues did not seem abnormally short or long at any stage.
Once at the front of the beverage queue staff would take our order, accept the card, and hold it against the device hanging from their necks.
The actual payment process lasted less than five seconds, much like the contact-less smart cards available from several banks.
Staff would then turn the machine display towards the clients to reflect the balance remaining. Staff did not inform us how much we were spending, however.
This means consumers worried about being over-charged have to remember how much they previously had on their card, what the price of their current order is, and weigh this up against the quick flash of the display unit.
According to Howler, users can request a full statement of transactions on the card by contacting support after the event. It’s unclear if or how any disputes can be addressed on the day of the event.
Getting our money back
After the event, we registered on the website in less than five minutes and logged a return request for the remaining money.
The site claims that transfers can take up to four working days. After logging the refund request on the Monday, the remaining R10 was refunded by Wednesday.
Although some venues charge another R5 to claim money back, the total cost if you want to purchase alcohol at Newlands Cricket Ground, and withdraw any money that remains on the card, is R10.
Complaints and frustrations
In spite of our experience with fast-moving queues, friendly staff, and quick payment procedures, without any cash or third-party card queue to compare it to it’s difficult to know how much of this can be credited to the cashless system.
There have, however, been complaints about the system both online and at events. Many who have been forced to use the system are not convinced.
Similar products, like bank cards, mobile payment apps, and tap technology already solve the problems Howler is claiming to address, often at a lower cost to consumers.
Howler has said in the past that many of these systems require reliable cellular network coverage in order to function properly, which they say is often a problem at large events.
One Google Review dismisses the operation as a money-making operation: “This is a waste of time and money. Queues are longer and money is spent before even purchasing anything,” it reads.
Another review questions the need for the service altogether. “It's just pointless. No faster than paying with a credit card, and now there are all these extra steps - sign up on line, get another card in my wallet, then go top it up if you run out. And then the card is only valid for the one event so add some more plastic to the landfills.”
The single-event card is regular source of angst. Howler cards can only be used at the event where they are purchased, leading to speculation about profit-making, and concerns about plastic waste.
An event where 10,000 attendees each purchase one card will generate a gross profit of R100 000, before other profit-making measures like event fees are counted.
This recurring fee is particularly jarring for regular festival goers, those who just want to order a single beverage, or for people who attend repeat sporting matches at the same venue.
Although the technology to have a single card for multiple events exists in most bank cards and mobile apps, Howler says it is a difficult problem to solve. According to their website FAQ, they are “hard at work identifying a solution to allow you to use this across multiple events.”
There are other revenue streams in the process that has led to some speculation. The company holds all cash on the user’s cards interest-free. According to their website, the cash is only available for withdrawal up to 30 days after the event. It is unclear what happens to this money once the 30 days lapse, but when pushed about this in a recent interview, CEO Shai Evian said users can request money back after this cutoff time by following an online procedure.
The result is many claim the process is not user-friendly, and designed to frustrate those who can’t be bothered to follow registration procedures to claim back remaining money.
Another pillar of Howler’s marketing campaign, safety, is also questionable. “Buy your tickets and top-up with money online. No wallet needed,” the website says. “There's top-level encryption on all NFC [near-field communication] cards and bands.”
However, unlike bank cards or mobile applications, there are no PIN or biometric security measures on the Howler cards, and no receipts issued after purchases. The website’s help section urges users to “treat your card or wristband like cash”.
If you lose your loaded Howler card at the event it’s as good as gone.
Ultimately the only real advantage that Howler can claim for attendees is ease of use and shorter queues. With a monopoly on events, and a policy that blocks any other form of payment, it is impossible to compare the two, or to know if the shorter queues are really to do with payments or other factors like staff, equipment, or attendance.
But with most of the country’s leading events now locked in to this cashless system, event-goers are faced with an easy decision between Howler, and being able to purchase food and drink.
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