The pandemic has had a brutal impact on retail payments as the shutdown of entire economic sectors – air travel, cultural events, restaurants… – combined with lockdown policies around the globe have led to a sharp reduction in transaction volumes, whether cash or digital. Besides the drop in volumes, the pandemic has also changed the way we pay as there has been a shift to online payments as well as contactless payments, as consumers and retailers have attempted to reduce the handling of cash, cards and card terminals or keypads, which have been accused – sometimes irrationally – as posing a risk of transmitting the disease.
At the same time, a number of countries have seen a significant surge in cash in circulation. In the US, cash in circulation increased by $200 billion since February 2020. In the euro area, the value of euro banknotes increased by €107 billion This represents a year-on-year increase of 10%. This is approximately twice the size of the spike of October 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Bros. Other countries have seen similar patterns: Australia, Argentina, India, Israel, Russia, Sweden…
But we have also seen another interesting trend: The Rise of the Cash Consumer. Around the world, consumer associations and civil rights groups are calling for access to cash as well as its acceptance by retailers. Here is a journey amongst the pro-cash consumer groups.
Sweden, which is often considered as the poster child for digital payments was amongst the first country to set up a pro-cash citizen’s movement – Kontantupproret – which translates into Cash Uprising. The group has over 14,000 followers on facebook. The Swedish Consumers’ Association Sveriges Konsumenter is also supporting cash: “we also fight for everyone’s right to continue to use cash”. They published a study showing that 7 out of 10 consumers want to be able to pay by cash in the future.
In the US, there has been a spectacular move whereby 51 consumer organisations signed a letter supporting the Payment Choice Act which would prohibit brick-and-mortar retailers from refusing to accept cash or charging consumers more for paying with cash. “The number and diversity of the organizations that support this legislation shows how fundamental the ability to pay with cash is for people in the United States,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “It should be everyone’s right.”
The European Consumer Association BEUC has published a position paper ‘Cash versus Cashless: Consumers need a right to use cash. The paper issues 4 recommendations for EU level actions to ensure that consumers have a non-discriminatory right to access and use cash:
In Australia, a petition has been launched on www.change.org calling for the right to access and use cash to be protected by law. At the time of writing, 1,800 people have signed. Cashwelcome.org is an industry initiative to provide a voice for cash and the millions of people who rely on it. The website features a shop selling T-shirts, stickers and a waist bag.
In the UK, Age UK, a charity dedicated to older people, has written an open letter to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to help older and vulnerable customers who are struggling to get cash as the lockdown continues, saying that “we are now approaching a critical time in the crisis… for older people.” The Consumer lobby Which? has also been vocal in defending cash and has launched a campaign to protect cash as a payment option. The campaign also features a petition with over 170,000 signatures at the time of writing.
The Which? Freedom to Pay Campaign
Campaigns and petitions are important. However, the best way for consumers to support cash is to spend it.