The Cashless Backlash

Amazon’s first cashier-less convenience store has opened in New York. Crowd DNA’s Tom Eccles pops in for a browse…

New York recently became the fourth city to feature one of Amazon’s cashier-less ‘Grab and Go’ stores. The stores offer a selection of typical convenience food – think sandwiches, drinks, ready meals, cook-at-home kits. But the appeal of Amazon Go isn’t really the products on offer – it’s the store experience itself; from the lack of any kind of checkout process, to the novelty that you simply take your items from the shelf and walk straight out the door. No lines, no one fumbling for quarters and no “unexpected items in the bagging area.”

Along came lunchtime on Friday – it was time to test drive the future of retail. I jumped on the subway, tapping my phone on the turnstile using NYC’s new contactless payment system, OMNY. To enter the store, I had to download the Amazon Go app, sign in and, again, scan my phone on the barrier. I browsed around, picking up and replacing a few items to try and fool the system, before deciding on some lunch and walking straight out.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I had a mobile notification with a receipt, helpfully informing me that I’d spent six minutes and ten seconds in the store. All in all, a pretty seamless, stress-free experience – and I didn’t use a single coin, banknote, or even a physical card.

So why, if the cashierless experience is so quick, easy and painless, is there a backlash against cashless stores on the rise? Earlier this year, Philadelphia became the first US city to ban stores from not accepting cash. New Jersey followed suit with a state-wide ban, joined soon after by San Francisco. New York City is now working on similar legislation. In response, fancy salad outlet Sweetgreen – after going card and app only in 2017 – has pledged to resume taking cash in all stores by the end of this year.

The main argument against going cashless is the exclusion of those who often don’t have the means to access digital forms of payment; namely lower-income families, the disabled and elderly. According to the FDIC, six percent of American households (8.4 million) don’t even have a bank account. Furthermore, a lack of adequate banking facilities disproportionately affects households of color: 17 percent of African American households have no bank account, and therefore no method of accessing cashless stores and services.

There are other arguments too. Privacy campaigners point out that a transition to electronic payments means yet more personal data being handed to corporations and governments – the latter a particular concern in China, which is well on its way to becoming the world’s first cashless society. It also increases the risk of potential exposure to identity and financial fraud.

As the option to pay with cash is disappearing from our streets, the ability to actually get hold of cash is also vanishing. In the UK, an average of 460 cash machines closed every month last year, while the number of bank branches is now less than 8,000, down from 18,000 in 1989. Here in the US, 6,008 branches closed between 2008 and 2016, resulting in ‘cash deserts’: areas with no banks and no access to ATMs.

Of course, times change – and as technology advances, the tech industry must find ways to include lower income and minority communities in the cashless revolution. For brands, while it is clearly important to embrace new and more efficient ways of working, they should do so in the most inclusive way possible too. As for Amazon Go, it is undoubtedly a futuristic and novel concept, but whether it is the future of retail, or an unnecessary pit-stop on the road to an e-commerce based future, is up for debate.