For those of you who, like me, are old enough you will remember a time when you went into smaller shops and pubs and you had to ask if they would accept card payments. And quite often the answer would be no, which is why my generation never left home without cash and the means to get it from a cash machine. I almost never had less than £20 in cash on me whenever I left the house. Even when I went out on long runs or bike rides I would take notes with me in case of emergencies.
Over the last year I was already getting used to the fact that people considered me a bit of a dinosaur when they saw me getting cash out to pay in shops and pubs. However, the Coronavirus has changed everything. I have visited a cash machine once in the last four months and carried the same £20 note around in my wallet for nearly three months. When I eventually needed change I went to buy something I didn’t really need in a nearby convenience store and actually asked if they would take cash as I felt like so many businesses were insistent on only taking card payments in order to avoid potential infection risks from handling notes and coins.
It has been a revelation to find that it is relatively easy to get around only spending with cards. I certainly appreciate not having the bulk of a cash-filled wallet with coins in my pockets and apart from the rather more detailed bank and credit card statements, I haven’t found too many downsides.
… but sometimes only cash will do
However, there are some micro-retailers who may be losing out. In rural England, where I live, there are still numerous places where you can stop at the roadside and buy eggs and veg fresh from where they were laid or grown, and pay for them in an honesty box. The one catch? You need cash. And not notes, but accurate change! Half a dozen eggs round our way usually cost between £1.40-1.80. Great value for nice eggs and we have at least three places where you can pick these up in our village alone, but you will need the right coins. And I don’t have those any more as I don’t spend notes in outlets to get change in cash.
Contactless for local vendors?
There are peer-to-peer payment options available via apps like Paypal and in countries like China this is well established, using their own version of Whatsapp called WeChat. However, these are not that widely used here in the UK and I fear for some of our smallest retailing operations at a time when many of us have been re-discovering the joys of shopping very locally. I can’t see my local egg vendors taking contactless payment any time soon. In the meantime the banks also charge the retailer for every transaction and while the fees are smaller for debit cards, given that people are using the cards for even quite small transactions at the moment, those fees make a difference.
So while I am enjoying making my own transition over to living in a more cashless society, it is not without its pitfalls. And the ones who will suffer most in a cashless society are those who can least afford it, people without bank accounts (over 3 million UK adults) and small retailers. So as I start to go out more and more, I for one will still be making sure I have some cash on me, including those pesky coins, because a sustainable society still needs cold hard currency to be fair to all.
Neil Russell-Bates, Hilltop Display Services