Jan 27, 2011 - 12:27 PM

“I'm charging my phone...”

With a debit card, that is.

Perhaps one day—and not far away—consumers will swipe their cellphones routinely instead of their credit cards when making purchases.  If you want to glimpse the future now, go to Starbucks.

Earlier this month, the Seattle-based company announced that customers of its 6,800 company-owned stores in the United States plus the 1,000 or so that are in Target stores can pay for their tab with their cellphones.

Up until now, companies such as PayPal have been trying to convert cash and credit consumers to mobile payment systems but with mixed results.  Now Starbucks has pushed the door wide open.  If you use a BlackBerry, iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download the free Starbucks Card app.  (An Android app is in the works.)  After you place your order, you hold your phone in front of a scanner near the cash register, and the money is debited from your Starbucks account.  You can load your account with your credit card or via PayPal.  Your iPhone will work, too.

Starbucks says that more than one-third of its customers use smartphones—perhaps a reasonable critical mass before investing in scanners and the tech support they require.  But from the customer’s point of view, a debit swipe is as fast as it comes.  Another advantage:  Starbucks will reward you for going mobile.  Customers can not only use the app to reload their cards and check balances.  They can also find nearby stores and earn credits to use for free beverages.

Prediction:  fast food companies to follow soon.