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What is the future for cashless stores?

With the development of flexible payment technologies such as mobile wallets and contactless, the UK is inching ever closer to being a cashless society.

The figures speak for themselves. A decade ago, cash was used for six in 10 transactions. Today, it is three in every 10, and in the next 15 years it is forecast that as few as one in 10 transactions will be made with cash.

While this is generally good news for retailers – given the growing challenges of handling cash – there is widespread concern that a cash-free society would leave millions of people behind.

Amazon Go
Amazon Go

The Access to Cash Review, published last month, argues that Government, regulators and banks must act to ensure cash remains viable for as long as people need it. “There are worrying signs that our cash system is falling apart,” says Natalie Ceeney, Independent Chair of the review. “ATM and bank branch closures are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath there is a huge infrastructure which is becoming increasingly unviable as cash use declines. If we sleepwalk into a cashless society, millions will be left behind. We need to guarantee people’s right to access cash and ensure that they can still spend it.”

It is a sentiment shared by Philadelphia City Council in the US, which has passed a ban on cashless stores. Starting in July, the law will require most businesses to accept cash. “With a 26 per cent poverty rate in Philadelphia, the Mayor believes in equal opportunity for all,” a spokesperson for the City of Philadelphia tells Retail Design World. “Until we can resolve the considerable hurdles facing the unbanked, we need to remove any obstacles that could prevent them from enjoying all amenities of this city. This decision comes despite our continued concerns about how this legislation might impact innovation in our retail sector.”

Amazon, which reportedly plans to open an Amazon Go store in Philadelphia, was in touch with the commerce department during the legislative process to express concerns, and has since confirmed that it is now working to accept cash.

This, says Alex Sbardella, SVP of Global Innovation at GDR Creative Intelligence, seems quite extraordinary when you think of the premise of the store: “It feels like this could be quite an important moment for cashless stores and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Attendant
Attendant

The issue of cash versus cashless is not just a market or retail or crime issue, claims Sbardella. “It has considerable implications for the nature of society, particularly with poorer, vulnerable or marginalised people. There are no easy answers, but I think there are more nuanced levers to pull than blanket banning cashless like Philadelphia has done.”

For Bosh McKeown, CEO and co-founder of specialty London coffee shop Attendant, it was a no brainer to switch to taking only card payments in 2018. “We saw that our proportion of card to cash payments was decreasing at the rapid rate over the years, to the extent where it only made up 20 per cent of our overall transactions across the whole business,” he recalls. “We weighed up the costs of the bank charges, the time taken to count the money at the end of each day, and then the time taken to send a team member to the bank throughout the week. Considering all these added costs to handling cash, we could see we were paying so much in time and fees to take cash.”

The small chain of independent coffee shops has lost less than one per cent of customers since the switch last April and has actually seen the number of transactions increase by 7-10 per cent as a result, as well as spend per head increase by 10-12 per cent.

Attendant
Attendant

“If going cash-free becomes illegal in the UK, then we can easily make the switch back to accepting cash,” adds McKeown. “It would just mean more cost pressures back on small businesses, which would of course continue to affect the sector.”

In recent weeks, Bear Market Coffee in Ireland has also taken the decision to go cash-free in one of its four stores, with customers and staff already asking when it will be rolled out to the other sites. “We want to make the customer experience in Bear Market as streamlined and efficient as possible, enabling our staff to focus on the customer,” say Ruth and Stephen Deasy, owners of Bear Market Coffee. The duo believe that by going cashless, staff spend less time with their heads down counting out change and more time creating an experience that prioritises customer service and a quality product served by trained baristas.

“Bear Market is all about innovation. The technology is here for businesses to be cashless so why not embrace it?”

It is also a more sustainable option, with fewer vehicles moving money around the city, and safer for staff as no money is kept on site.

“We are very early to the cashless movement and as such there will be people that it won’t suit like any early adoptor,” say the owners. “Having said that, we are trying to make our store as accessible as possible with multiple purchasing options, in addition to a card such as via our app (which can be topped up online or with cash in any of our other stores).”

The pair believe that while there will always be operators against the move, more cashless stores will inevitably open in the near future. “Cashless very much suits higher price-point products, such as restaurants, salons and fashion boutiques, and [we] believe this is where you will see the biggest shift to cashless.”

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