Will a cashless retail vision work in the wider world?

The future of the cashless shopping experience creeps ever closer. Adobe recently announced a new prototype of the retail store featuring RFID chip-enabled bags that enable shoppers to automatically buy items by placing them on the checkout counter. In Adobe’s prototype store in Las Vegas, there’s no cash, no card, no mobile payment. Just a step towards a retail world connected through the Internet of Things.

This innovation, providing a truly cashless store, inspired me to use a recent visit to the United States to test something I’d wondered for sometime. With the rise of retail technology and new payment models such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, how possible is it to live and travel without any cash at all?

The cashless, week-long work visit started well on arrival in Chicago and the easy journey with Uber to the hotel. Initially, it was easy to exist with just a credit card.

The first problem arose the following morning when the time came to catch the free hotel shuttle bus to the airport. It soon became clear that tipping would be a big issue in the cashless society. A surly bag attendant, expecting his five bucks for shifting my luggage, wasn’t pleased with a half-whispered explanation about trialling society’s future of electronic monetisation.

Smooth progress was resumed quickly. Next came the flight to North West Arkansas and a local taxi to a business meeting. This was only a small firm but it was easy to pay by card. Then, after the meeting, I took another Uber (apparently in plentiful supply in Arkansas) to Starbucks, where the coffee retailer’s app delivered a much-needed shot of caffeine.

International boundaries

Next came the Bentonville Square Walmart where, at the self-service till, I was about to pay by credit card before being offered another cashless solution in the shape of the Walmart Pay App.

This was all set to be another seamless cashless situation before an issue arose in the shape of international boundaries. Convenient as the Wal-Mart app option looked, it was a no-go as the US app wouldn’t work with my version of Google Play Apps. Uber has managed to solve this compatibility across borders issue, which is an important one for retailers to address if they’re to grab a share of payments revenue. You can be sure Apple and Samsung Pay are moving towards this cross-border functionality as contactless payments gain traction, with transactions expected to reach 148 million this year.

Musing on this, it was time to travel from Arkansas to New York City for the final leg of my trip. And an experience that highlighted the current limits of cashless society.

Tipping crisis

Talking to a friend at the shopper marketing event we were attending in New York, it soon became clear she thought I wouldn’t get far in the city without cash. She insistently forced a dollar into my hand to at least get me somewhere when tipping. And she was right. In several situations in hotels and other places it was hard to get very far without tipping with cash. Too embarrassed to offer one measly bill, I managed to hold onto my dollar but received more than a few frosty looks and not much in the way of good service. Sure, in bars and restaurants it’s easy to tip electronically but it gets tricky when you go further into the service economy. An economy that soon merges into the grey economy and, eventually, into the black economy.

There are serious consequences of a cashless society that will require everybody to have a bank account to exist and where every transaction is traceable and accountable. Let’s face it, beyond the equality issues at play here, there are a whole lot of things people will want to pay for and yet not have a record of.

It won’t be long until Adobe’s connected vision becomes the reality for millions of shoppers but my US trip clearly showed me that society is moving towards a largely cashless environment built around straightforward use of mobile apps to pay for almost everything. It’s not going to be difficult in places like London and US towns and cities. But what about the “grey” areas of the world, where are the solutions for the difficult deals in the service economy?

This is a perplexing problem for society and for those in some parts of the service economy, if not for mainstream retailers. There’s a short-term solution at least because, for the foreseeable future, I’ll travel with a bunch of dollar bills to pacify combustible luggage attendants.



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