7 companies that dare to deny cash

Published
  • February 09 2018, 11:10am EST

It's a long-held dream of the card networks and fintech providers that consumers will one day stop carrying cash and pay entirely with plastic or digital alternatives.

Even today, as mobile and e-commerce payment options flood the market, few companies are willing to do away with cash acceptance. But a handful of brands have launched cashless locations, taking a bold step into a future where cash is no longer king.

This listicle is compiled from reporting by PaymentsSource writers including John Adams, Kate Fitzgerald and Nick Holland. Click the links in each item to read more.

Sweetgreen and the credit card diet

Back in 2013, Sweetgreen participated in LevelUp's “Credit Card Diet Day,” making it one of 20 LevelUp clients to reject cash for a day.

Not all diets last, but this one did. In 2017, Sweetgreen, which operates 64 fast-casual salad eateries, went fully cashless.

“Getting rid of cash improved efficiency, cut operating costs around transporting cash to the bank and we promoted it as environmentally friendly," said Theresa Dold, who was Sweetgreen’s director of product until she joined mobile payments firm LevelUp in mid-2017 as vice president of agency strategy.

At the time the cash ban went into effect, just 10% of Sweetgreen's sales were handled in cash. A year earlier, the company tested the cashless concept in six locations — resulting in a 10% boost to service speed.

Content Continues Below

Amazon Go — a cashless concept ahead of its time

Perhaps the most famous modern-day example of a cashless store is Amazon Go, which does without cashiers entirely.

After a year of teething trouble at the Amazon Go cashierless concept store in Seattle, the e-tailer finally opened its doors to the public in January. While a fascinating exercise in the potential for technology to streamline choke points in a store, no amount of Jetsons-esque technology can prepare the company for a stampede of consumers accustomed to Flintstones-era retail.

Desipte its ambition, the Amazon Go store has not had an auspicious start, with the pilot raising issues such as not being able to track more than 20 people in-store and incorrectly tracking items that are moved from shelves. While the bugs have apparently been ironed out, the idiosyncrasies of human behavior are likely to be just as problematic in unattended retail as they are in driverless cars.

The reason for the complex array of sensors in the Amazon Go store relates to a number of factors — customer analytics, inventory management and real-time diagnostics — but there is also one critical reason for the technology: trust.

In a study conducted by the University of Leicester in the U.K., losses incurred through self-service technology payment systems totalled 3.97% of stock, compared to just 1.47% otherwise. There are checks and balances in place with today’s self-service checkouts but these are far from foolproof.

A key difference with Amazon Go is every shopper is known from the moment they enter the store. Amazon has glass-gate turnstiles set up at the entrance, prompting shoppers to check in by scanning an app, much like subway riders might scan an app or a fare card before entering the system.

In Amazon's utopian shopping model, nobody is a stranger. This doesn't wipe out the possibility of shoplifting — any more than security cameras or guards wipe out shoplifting at other stores — but it does change the dynamic in a meaningful way.

How Disney built its cashless kingdom

Of all the companies testing a cashless retail concept, Walt Disney Co. is perhaps the best equipped to succeed.

Disney this month starts testing a cashless environment at its Animal Kingdom Lodge. Lots of options remain: Credit cards, debit cards, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Google Pay and — of course — Disney's MagicBands, which function as wearable payment devices, hotel room keys, theme park admission tickets and fashion accessories.

The lodge is separate from the Animal Kingdom theme park. But as with many Disney hotels, Animal Kingdom Lodge guests have free bus access to the theme parks, meaning they never have to leave the Disney ecosystem for the duration of their stay.

Thus, it's clear that while cash is still accepted at the rest of Disney's properties, the company will be watching closely to see whether Animal Kingdom Lodge guests build habits that follow them throughout their vacation.

"Cash represents a larger problem for amusement parks than for many other merchant types," said Rick Oglesby, founder and president of AZ Payments Group. "The nature of the amusement park, having huge crowds, wild rides and many opportunities to get soaking wet, makes it undesirable to carry valuables of any type, including cash."

A cashless property is not as radical a departure as it would be for a restaurant or a shopping mall. Disney has long designed its theme parks to exist as worlds unto themselves, issuing its own "currency" to use as money or as a souvenir.

Disney Dollars, existed for about 30 years before being retired two years ago. Disney Dollars laid the foundation for a contactless Key to the World card that eventually became the wearable MagicBands in use today. Disney also pursued alternative "non-miles" travel incentives when the market was still dominated almost entirely by frequent flier perks, and was an early adopter of OEM mobile payment systems.

All of this goes back to Walt Disney's original vision of E.P.C.O.T as a self-contained city that reorganized work, education, transportation and systems of commerce and ownership. The idea eventually inspired the E.P.C.O.T theme park in Florida, not far from Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Shake Shack updates its 'buzzers,' killing cash in the process

What makes Shake Shack's cashless store so potentially powerful — even if it's only one location in Manhattan — is what the burger chain can do when every customer is known to it.

Suppressing cash is simply the first step. Through the Astor Place location's use of kiosks and a text messaging system, it replaces the pagers it uses at other locations to let patrons know an order is ready. Shake Shack can greatly deepen its relationship with each customer while also slashing its own operational costs.

The typical Shake Shack ordering process involves standing in one of two lines to order (one for food and drink, and a faster line for only drinks), paying a cashier, then waiting again for the pager to buzz when the order is ready. The system results in such long lines that Shake Shack provides a "Shack Cam" on its website to allow customers to judge whether they can bother with the wait at its store in New York's Madison Square Park.

Almost all of this process is removed in the company's new model, which relies on kiosks or a mobile device and — crucially — collects the customer's phone number as part of the ordering process so that it can send a text alert when the food is ready.

"Beyond eliminating cash it's about eliminating the point of sale. That's a game changer," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant and researcher.

It's clear that this purely digital system opens new possibilities that might have been just out of reach in a system that still allows cash.

Shake Shack already has an order-ahead app, which should of course be compatible with the new location. The app lets users select a location and pickup time, and remembers customers by either creating a Shake Shack account or asking them to link a Facebook or Google account. In this model, the app handles the payment and also doubles as the buzzer — but one look at the Shack Cam is enough to show that many customers still pay the old fashioned way.

Content Continues Below

Mobile pioneer Starbucks takes cash off the menu

Starbucks is testing a policy in which it will not accept cash at a store in Seattle, supporting only plastic or mobile payments.

While many stores are eager to push consumers to digital payments, it's rare to ban cash outright. If there is a retailer that could successfully pull off a cashless store, it would be Starbucks, which serves a mobile-friendly demographic from a Seattle headquarters that aids its tech-savvy brand.

More than a quarter of the chain's transactions come through its mobile app, and about 10% of its order-ahead sales come through mobile. Technology is such a large part of the company's overall identity, its executive moves are often viewed through a lens of how the shift affects the company's mobile strategy.

Starbucks told The Seattle Times that the cashless store, at the corner of Second Avenue and University in downtown Seattle, is the only store testing no-cash payments. Starbucks didn't tell the paper how long the test would last or if it would be expanded to other locations.

It's also unclear what Starbucks expects to learn from the test at a high-profile venue, suggesting the move is more of a publicity stunt. The downtown Seattle location serves a mostly upscale clientele that probably doesn’t use much cash already, so there is little risk of a consumer outcry.

This also affects how transferrable the concept is to other businesses. Starbucks' mobile app has given it a huge amount of customer data that informs marketing campaigns and personalized offers, but the app's success is built on top of on an already popular gift card program. Any other company wouldn't see the same results by copying the mobile strategy alone.

Beating Amazon at its own game

Amazon Go's cashierless concept store may still be too new to determine its success or failure — but it has inspired other companies to develop their own versions.

One is Standard Cognition, a Palo Alto-based startup that is selling artificial intelligence technology that uses advanced cameras to eliminate most of a store's need for traditional checkout.

Standard Cognition's service is backed by machine vision and artificial intelligence, which act as a computerized "staff" that monitors what people pick up from shelves. A 30,000 square foot supermarket would require between 150 and 200 cameras in the ceiling that would take images of shoppers as they walk through the store and take items. These cameras use AI to communicate with each other and an optional mobile app to handle the sale.

Another example is RetailNext, which uses sensors that have their roots in casino security. This technology has been improved to distinguish staff from shoppers, and can ID where shoppers are in stores and what they are buying.

Where cash isn't just king — it's the law

Perhaps the bravest anti-cash stores are the ones in Massachusetts, where since 1978 it's been illegal for retailers to refuse cash.

The law was a focus of a 2016 Boston Globe profile of local cashless businesses, including Amsterdam Falafelshop in Kenmore Square (that location closed in early 2017, but the company maintains a location in nearby Somerville).

The law was little-known, according to the Globe, but it may not be as sweeping as it looks. The article examines whether companies such as parking garages might be exempt from the traditional definition of a "retail establishment," the wording used in the text of the law.