A couple days ago, a Chicago Tribune reporter published a piece about one Ald. Ed Burke. He’s 14th chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, and he’s really, really against restaurants that don’t accept cash. So much that he’s introduced an ordinance that, if it passes, will mean Chicago businesses going cashless will face fines and possibly lose their licenses. “It’s user-unfriendly,” he said of the idea of cashless restaurants. “It’s elitist and it shouldn’t be permitted.”
Regardless of how the ordinance fares, the concept of cashless restaurants continues to be a heated topic, and with mobile payments forecasted to grow to $142 billion by 2019, the debate’s not going anywhere. We’re obviously in an age when alternative digital payments are an accepted norm, but are we ready to completely ditch the greenbacks?
Visa would like you to think so. The credit card giant made a lot of headlines this summer when it announced the “Visa Cashless Challenge,” where it would give any restaurant promising to go cashless up to half-a-million dollars. It also incurred a huge amount of backlash.
So who’s right? Like most things in business, it depends on who you talk to. With that in mind, here are just a few reasons for both arguments. This isn’t a comprehensive list, so add yours in the comments.
Cashless payments are safer for businesses.
When salad company Sweetgreen, which has multiple U.S. locations, went cashless this year, it cited worker safety as a big motivator. You can’t, after all, hold up a mini-mart and demand the contents of the cash drawer if said cash drawer doesn’t exist. And in cities where businesses tend to stay open late or all night, the risk of a worker meeting trouble in the small hours of the morning would be considerably lessened in a cashless society. At minimum, those workers might feel a little more at ease when closing down the bar alone at 4 a.m.
They speed up service.
Thanks to mobile POS systems, restaurant servers now have the ability to swipe a credit or debit card at the table, effectively taking care of the bill in a matter of seconds. In quick-service restaurants, where lunchtime crowds want to order, pay, and eat as fast as possible, cashless payments cut down on lines and speed up the entire transaction process. And for the restaurant staff, it means less time spent closing up at the end of the day. Anyone who’s ever tried to reconcile a cash drawer at the end of the night knows how time-consuming and tedious the process is. Restaurants like NYC’s Fish Cheeks note that moving to cashless payments drastically reduces these factors: “With credit cards, you literally just print the closing report,” says restaurant partner Jennifer Saesue.
They allow for greater accuracy.
Speaking of human error and the cash drawer: there will inevitably be mistakes when a restaurant deals in cash payments. Sometimes it’s a math error. Other times, it’s because someone’s skimming from the till. Then there are those times where the till is $30 short and there doesn’t seem to be a feasible explanation. Cashless payments would hopefully eliminate all of those things. “If there’s ever an issue with the check that day, it’s easy to see what happened and correct it quickly,” said Adam Landsman, a partner at Brooklyn restaurant Sunday.
It’s expensive for businesses.
Here in NYC, it’s still very common to encounter coffeeshops with Cash Only signs near the register. These independently owned businesses maintain this policy for a good reason. Credit card companies have processing fees, not to mention other hidden charges, for businesses accepting their cards (Here’s an informative breakdown of restaurant credit card processing.) The United States has one of the world’s highest interchange fees. Ever wonder why the cost of a latte keeps going up? The merchant is most likely making the interchange fee part of the price of the beverage. You can hardly blame these guys, either. Processing fees might be manageable for The Cheesecake Factory, but for small, locally owned business, the 1–3 percent charge can be a real hit in business.
It’s potentially illegal.
As far as the government is concerned, businesses get to choose whether to accept cash or not. That said, if local or state government thinks otherwise, businesses have to comply. Hence Chicago restaurants getting fined if Ald. Ed Burke’s ordinance goes through. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a law has been on the books since 1978 that requires businesses to accept cash payments. Not that everyone’s following the rules.
It alienates the young and the poor.
As of 2015, 7 percent of the U.S. population was “unbanked,” or didn’t have a bank account and therefore carried no plastic. Some of these people are teenagers. Some are low-income households, for whom maintaining a bank account is too expensive because of the fees. Still more just don’t trust banks. Whatever their reasons, these people still buy household goods and go out to the movies, and were the country to go cashless, an entire section of the population would be left out in the cold. This is the issue Ald. Ed Burke has presumably aimed his new ordinance at.
Going full-on cashless is not going to happen any time soon, though the question of alienating certain consumers is a good one to start discussing now. At the moment, being for or against cashless payments comes down to the business you run, the customers you serve, and whether a digital-only system actually makes sense.