Arguments against uploading the grocery store to the cloud include potential job losses for cashiers and baggers, but also cybersecurity and IT failures, particularly during disasters. Imagine dozens of shoppers running for sensors in the panicked hours ahead of tornadoes or winter storms. (Amazon has said its Go stores can handle an influx of shoppers, up to fire code.)
A December report from the United Kingdom also raised the issue of surveillance and abuse. Couples with shared bank accounts can easily track each other’s purchases in a cashless economy, which could make it easier for abusers to harass their spouse.
Still, cashless is catching on. A second Amazon Go location in the Financial District, a few blocks west, opened this week. Walmart and Tesco are exploring similar cashless stores. The popular fast-casual restaurant Sweetgreen, the men’s retailer Bonobos, and the Drybar hair salon have all sworn off paper bills, advising employees to simply turn people away if they can’t pay digitally. Visa just awarded 50 small businesses, almost all of them fast-casual food spots, $10,000 each for winning its “cashless challenge.”
“We’re going cashless to keep up with the Millennial trend,” one chirpy winner says in Visa’s promotional YouTube clip. The winners value a post-cash setup because it makes for faster transactions and fewer trips to the bank, they say. “No one likes cash,” one owner concludes. “And we don’t like cash.”
Killing cash makes billions for credit-card companies. “Card swipe” fees, a roughly 1 percent charge that retailers pay to banks when shoppers pay using credit and debit cards, earned Visa and Mastercard about $43 billion last year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Shifting businesses toward “frictionless” card-only pay models is an enormous moneymaker, especially in high-volume food spots where people want to get in and get out as rapidly as possible.
It’s a quick and convenient design, and customers may not know that billions of dollars in invisible micro-charges are motivating the shift to “tap to pay” stores popping up in their neighborhood. But while the distinction between cash and money may be irrelevant to a new crop of Millennial-focused restaurant owners, some lawmakers are arguing that cashless design is classist. In November, the New York City councilman Ritchie Torres introduced a bill to ban all types of cashless retailers, Go stores, and restaurants. Similar bills have been introduced in Philadelphia and D.C. Chicago’s attempt at a ban failed.
“In some ways, making a card a requirement for consumption is analogous to making identification a requirement for voting,” Torres told Grubstreet last month. “The effect is the same: It disempowers communities of color.”
Seventeen percent of all black households and 14 percent of all Hispanic households had no bank account in 2017, according to a report from the FDIC. Some have poor credit; some work jobs where they’re paid only in cash. Cashlessness isn’t an option for them. Similar to how Go shoppers can’t get beyond the lobby without an app and an Amazon account, cashless stores, Torres says, create public spaces that all but bar low-income people from entry. The unbanked have two choices: Join a digital economy via the traditional banking institutions or disappear from these new spaces.