Philadelphia, PA yesterday became the first major U.S. city to ban cashless stores, The Wall Street Journal reports. A new law will “require most retail stores to accept cash” and goes into effect in July 2019.
The law would not include parking garages, stores like Costco (which require membership) or hotels, according to the WSJ. But it will affect restaurants, grocery stores, and other food retailers, including Amazon Go stores.
Amazon had asked for an exemption for the new law but was told by Philly lawmakers that in order to get one, Amazon Go stores would have to require membership a la Costco. Currently, Amazon’s cashless grab ’n’ go stores are not restricted to Amazon Prime members, as they would have to be if Amazon were to go for an exemption from the new law in Philadelphia.
It’s the latest move in a series of pushbacks over the last several months around businesses going cashless. In NYC, councilman Ritchie J. Torres introduced legislation last November that would require restaurants and retailers to accept cash. New Jersey has passed a bill banning cashless stores earlier this year. Massachusetts has been legally requiring stores to accept cash since the 1970s.
Massachusetts wasn’t concerned about Amazon swallowing up the world when it passed its law over 40 years ago, but the more recent efforts are most certainly in response to the growing number of establishments trying to go cashless. In the food world that includes Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, the Milk Bar, and Dig Inn. And, of course, Amazon, who currently has Go stores in Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. Some industry heavyweights have defended the movement towards cashless business, with Union Square Hospitality’s Danny Meyer citing safety as one of the biggest reasons. Meyer also said that “with the growing ubiquity of plastic and mobile payment, many businesses are choosing to eliminate cash from their operation entirely.”
The thing is, mobile payments aren’t ubiquitous yet, and nor are credit and debit cards. Those who are against cashless businesses argue that restaurants and stores only accepting those payment forms exclude poorer communities and those for whom credit cards might not be an option. Councilman Torres went as far as to say that “insidious racism” underlies the cashless model.
According to a survey by Gallup, most Americans “see the death of cash in their lifetimes.” Countries like Sweden are already well on their way to dumping cash, with IKEA even testing a cashless location in Gavle (north of Stockholm). But even a forward-thinking nation like Sweden is dealing with pushback, with some claiming cashless businesses discriminate against the poor, those with disabilities, and newly arrived refugees.
There may be middle ground, and some folks are working to find it. For instance, a company called All_ebt uses a combination of Facebook Messenger and virtual Visa cards to let those on SNAP assistance shop online and even at Amazon Go stores. It’s not a magical fix that will solve all the issues surrounding the cashless model. But if we are in fact headed towards a cashless future, we need more companies and organizations like All_ebt who are willing to use tech to find a way to include everyone in this new movement. Until we get more of those efforts to find middle ground, a citywide ban on cashless business is probably a good call.