Tuesday 23 July 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Why going cashless is creeping in'

Coffee shops are among those that have already ditched cash payments
Coffee shops are among those that have already ditched cash payments
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

A month ago, I won about €300 in a bookies. And I was crestfallen to collect it - it was an insurance bet against my beloved Liverpool losing the league.

But that €300 is still wedged in my wallet. Not because I don't spend money, but because I no longer spend cash.

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A few recent reports suggest I'm not the only one. The latest figures from the UK, which Ireland closely follows, show that one in 10 of us barely make any cash payments anymore.

And if you're under 35, that figure rises to one in six. Many young people now make no more than a single cash payment a month. And it's a fair bet that this is purely for the handful of laggard shops that still insist on a minimum purchase for contactless card payments when buying a Mars Bar.

I see this every morning as I queue for a coffee in the shop beneath this newspaper's office.

The sound accompanying the purchasing process rarely features the jingle-jangle of coins anymore, or the opening of a till to flatten out paper money. These days, it's almost universally a beep triggered by contactless cards, phones or even smartwatches.

In a few years, this cashless habit looks set to be a universal thing across generations.

So should we all start planning to ditch cash as a rule?

One of Dublin's newer city centre coffee shops has done exactly this, cutting cash from its list of payment methods.

Bear Market Coffee, on George's Street, will accept contactless cards, smartphone and Watch payments. But it won't accept notes or coins.

"From a business perspective there are numerous operational advantages from cleanliness to security," said Stephen Deasy, co-founder of the coffee chain.

"We are finding that our customers are increasingly living cashless lives and using their cards for even the smallest of transactions."

A conservative reading of this might suggest that a cashless move in a city centre area like the one Bear Market is located in could see a company miss out on some of the tourist trade. After all, US and Canadian consumers are not as habituated to paying with contactless cards as European shoppers.

But even in America, cashless shops are now starting to take hold.

Amazon Go has 12 separate outlets across US cities. If you've never been to one, the concept is simple. You enter the shop, tap your Amazon Go phone app and then walk around picking products. When you leave, your Amazon account is debited the value of the products you have as you walk out.

Rivals, such as Zippin, are starting to pop up.

In China, where I recently spent a week, it's even more advanced. The WeChat app - commonly used as the Chinese version of WhatsApp (which is banned in China) - can be used to pay for almost anything. Indeed, I found it to be a survival tool in China: there's almost no day-to-day expense you can't settle with it. At one point, I couldn't get a taxi on a bustling street because they're all set up for mobile payments instead of cash.

Recent figures illustrate the gulf in mobile or cashless payments between China and the rest of the world. For example, in the US it's around €100bn annually. In China, it's at least 10 times that.

In Europe, Sweden leads with less than 1pc of purchases, overall, now taking place in cash and fewer than one in five store transactions in cash.

Generally speaking, the advantages to a cashless way of life should be significant on a personal and societal level.

There's security. For example, a few years ago some close friends of mine were burgled. In addition to items of sentimental value, the intruders made off with about €3,000 in cash. While I was sympathising with them over the loss, I couldn't help thinking too: what were you doing with that much cash in the house?

It was a holiday fund, apparently. A quick ask-around the office suggests that this isn't all that unusual.

But it's a little reckless and odd.

Not everyone is delighted about the gradual drift to a cashless society.

On a recent trip to a populated Irish island, I was informed that the local bar would only accept cash. I found this odd given that the island has pretty adequate mobile and broadband connectivity. The person I was speaking to just tapped their nose and winked.

There are legitimate concerns, too. Some US cities are now passing laws to require shops to accept cash. This is seen as a social equality measure as some in society do not have the financial credit to set up or maintain a cashless flow.

In Ireland, some have expressed concern that moving too quickly to a cashless system might confuse or penalise the elderly or vulnerable sections of society.

While there are solid grounds for proceeding with caution so as not to exclude anyone from being able to participate in ordinary life, I have always found the line that older people won't be able to cope as being a little tired.

As with other arguments around the supposed inability of older generations to cope with new systems, it's a little patronising. It also denies them agency. Older people in Ireland have taken to some technology platforms, such as smartphones and Facebook, with gusto. It doesn't make much sense that they would be bamboozled by something as relatively straightforward as a mobile contactless payment.

None of this should be taken to mean, incidentally, that we're any closer to radically alternate payments systems, such as cryptocurrencies. Whatever zeal there was for that a few years ago has ebbed a little.

However, when The Simon Community is now able to accept Apple Pay and phone swipes around Dublin streets in its Christmas fundraising drive, you know that change is afoot.

Come to think of it, there's an idea for that €300...

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