Sitting at a table in a pub garden, I am already accustomed to looking around for the QR code to scan for the drinks menu. Perhaps my party looks incredibly anti-social, but the reason we’re all sat silently on our phones for the first 5 minutes of our rendezvous is because we’re navigating an app so we can order a glass of sav. It’s a process which feels vastly preferable to the bygone era of queuing at a bar and being ignored by the bartender because someone more pushy than me got served first.
Bit by bit our world has become increasingly cashless as we applaud the ease digital and contactless payments give us. As with many social trends, Covid-19 either flipped them on their heads, stopped them in their tracks, or propelled them forward at an unprecedented pace (couldn’t resist fitting that word in somewhere). Cashless payments fall firmly into the latter. Transport was one of the early movers, ditching the cash on buses and on many ticket machines in stations. Supermarket self-serve machines promptly followed suit, with ‘card only’ emblazoned across their screens. Now with concerns around transmitting Covid-19 with cash, the rest of society has swiftly had to jump in the same boat. For many businesses, this went beyond simply refusing cash in store. With stores themselves shut for the majority of the pandemic, businesses that weren’t online suffered the most. Local shops were suddenly setting up websites and restaurants listed in their droves on delivery apps. We quickly became an economy where to survive is to be online.
With the decline in accepting cash and the rise of ecommerce, 5 out of every 6 payments in the UK are now completely cashless1. Many consumers seem to be at ease with the adjustment, but according to a survey by Which?, 1 in 3 people across the UK were unable to pay at least once since the start of lockdown because of cash not being accepted2. This leaves a large proportion of society in a position where they are limited, or even excluded, by a lack of cash acceptance. There are numerous groups who rely on cash to a greater extent: the elderly, the homeless, and those with certain disabilities. Their ability to navigate daily purchases and meet basic needs is greatly hindered by the move to cashless, a topic which is gathering interest in the media more recently.
There is another group in society less talked about where the consequences can be even more far reaching. Here at 2CV we have researched the impact of businesses being cashless on gamblers. Cash plays a significant role in budgeting and control of spend when gambling. It allows people to keep track of spending and feel the immediate pain of parting with money. Entering a betting shop with only a £20 note in your pocket provides a physical limitation you cannot exceed. Moving payments solely into the digital world promotes an ease of payment which isn’t always welcome. Cashless forms of payment delay the feeling of loss and remove the physical limits to spending more than intended. Many gamblers feel that the loss of paying with cash is a loss of control and opens a gateway to spending beyond their means.
With a clear negative impact on gamblers, it raises the question about other areas where the ease of cashless might also be less welcome. Does cashless promote greater spend on alcohol or fuel shopping addictions? Does removing cash remove the safeguards that many need to consume responsibly? This ultimately leads to the question, do businesses have an obligation to protect consumers in how they do or do not enable consumers to pay?
1: The Guardian: Cashed out: a fond farewell to coins and notes