At a pop-up market in New York's Union Square Park this week, locals and tourists squeeze past each other as they make their way through rows of candy cane-striped tents, perusing merchants' products as hurried commuters coming and going from a nearby subway entrance dart through the crowd.
Most are just browsing, enjoying the sound of nearby carolers and the smells emanating from the booths of bakers and spice vendors. But for the shoppers who do make purchases, cash isn't the necessity that it once was at destinations like these.
For a city as savvy as New York, it's a surprisingly cash-reliant culture. It's not that cards aren't accepted, but it's no secret that cabbies miraculously get cash-paying passengers dropped off faster and good luck using plastic at the corner bodegas throughout the five boroughs.
That same cash culture has long been the status quo at venues like the Union Square Holiday Market, but that trend is now shifting. Booth by booth, row by row, nearly all of the market's 150 vendors have payments systems to accept credit cards.
At 19 years running, the holiday market has become a tradition of sorts for this neighborhood located at the unofficial border between Lower Manhattan and Midtown. For the micro merchants that set up shop in the park, accepting cards has become a necessity, said A.J. Urias, who was manning a bustling booth of merchant Insiders1 on the Wednesday before Christmas.
"A lot of people think the market's cash-only, but if you're a merchant that accepts both cards and cash, you get 100% of your sales," he said. Otherwise, "it's like going to a coffee shop and they say they don't have decaf. You're gonna lose business."
The Brooklyn-based vendor sells leather bags and accessories that are printed with iconic images of New York, Paris and other cities on an online store it runs year-round and at holiday markets at Union Square and Grand Central Terminal.
The price point of the vendor's merchandise also makes accepting cards a necessity, Urias said. Insiders1's products range from $25 to more than $300 and "if it's under $40, they'll pay cash. If it's over $50 we get cards.”
The merchant has long accepted credit cards using a traditional card terminal, but switched to the Square mobile card reader this year so it could take advantage of using an iPad and the Square Register app to manage its business.
"It's nothing really to do with Square; it has to do with the iPad. Everything's paperless," Urias said, adding that "they give you the Square for free. Anything that's free, you want it."
Urias explained that while the Square card reader and accompanying app aren't complicated to use, his experience did come with a caveat.
"The Square can be a pain. It's fragile and you sometimes have to swipe a card 10 times to get it to work," he said. The Union Square Park normally has free Wi-Fi, but when it's not working, vendors have to rely on New York's notoriously spotty cellular data signals.
And Insiders1 still finds it necessary to keep a traditional card terminal on hand for times when the Square device just won't work. But overall, Urias said, "this little Square thing saves a lot of time."
While legacy credit card terminal manufacturer VeriFone recently announced it was ceding direct-to-merchants sales of mobile payments devices to its competitors, pop-up markets like the holiday venues in New York are a prime target for vendors like Square. The company fields inquiries from market organizers, providing boxes of card readers to distribute to merchants, along with stickers and other signage. It also proactively reaches out to event planners, pitching its model of not requiring merchants to sign a contract or pay monthly fees to merchants with a short-term need for card acceptance.
Mobile card readers are not ubiquitous among the Union Square vendors that accept plastic. In a casual observation of the devices employed by merchants, there appeared to be a near-even split between those using a mobile card reader versus traditional terminals.
One vendor, who declined to give her name, said she preferred the paper receipts of traditional card terminals. "I don't have the time to enter in someone's email or phone number to send them a receipt," she said.
Liddabit Sweets is one recent Square convert. The Brooklyn-based seasonal and natural candy and snack maker accepted only cash at last year's Union Square Holiday Market. But this year, cards account for about 20% of sales done at the booth, said Victor Schramm, who sells the company's products at various holiday and farmers markets throughout New York.
"I had three big sales around $150 each that I wouldn't have made if I was cash-only," he said, adding that last year, he had to turn customers away. "They say 'I'll come back after I go to the ATM,' then we'd never see them again."
The Union Square market is a popular lunchtime destination for workers at nearby offices and Schramm said accepting cards makes it easier for that segment of customers to quickly pick up gifts for their coworkers. But when Schramm works the New Amsterdam Market, a weekend farmers market in Lower Manhattan, fewer customers want to pay with cards.
"It really depends on the market if you have to do Square," he said. "At a holiday market where people are buying gifts, it's really important, but people know that everybody's cash-only at the farmers market."