The future is digital: Why more restaurants are going cash-free

Only one in 10 transactions in the UK will use cash within the next decade. Or at least that’s what ITV’s Cash Free Britain? predicted on an ITV news report just last week.

And this prediction is not as bold as it may seem upon first glance. Businesses and customers have increasingly turned their backs on cash over the last few years. Notes and coins were used for only 28% of all payments in 2018, and in 2019, three quarters of retail sales were paid by card.

Brave new world

But what does this mean for hospitality? Should the industry prepare for a future without cash? And for those that already made the switch, what do you reap from going cash-free? What do restaurateurs make of this vision of the future? We went ahead and asked some to take a litmus test from the industry.

Kevin Farrell runs Vegivores, a vegan restaurant in Reading which opened as a cashless operation back in October 2019. The decision to ditch cash was down to a “multitude of factors”. For starters, the security and record keeping risks of cash concerned Farrell. After all, cash can be lost, stolen, or miscounted, “whereas card transactions are secure and transparent”.

Debs Lewis, of Cardiff’s Dusty Knuckle Pizza, is another business owner who saw card-only payments as the safest way forward. ”We are at a significantly reduced risk of theft from external and internal influences”, she says. “Plus, it protects our staff should the day arrive where someone attempts to take cash.”

Not only do these businesses feel more secure without cash: Adam Cozens, who runs London-based cashless coffee kiosk chain Perky Blenders, said that going cashless ensured an all important lack of “time cost” for business. With no notes or coins left on-premises, not only was the likelihood of break-ins reduced, but float counts and bank trips were completely eliminated. 

Meanwhile, Brighton pizza joint Purezza said that going cash-free has “huge positive knock-on effects to your restaurant experience”. “We’re a restaurant that wants only the best experiences for our staff”, they say, “and this allows us to strip away tedious and time-consuming tasks like counting the float and cashing up at the end of the day.”

Dirty money

As well as taking up arduous hours of work, cash-handling also poses a risk to our health. A 2018 study from and the London Metropolitan University discovered two superbugs on coins and notes, including MRSA, as well as 19 different kinds of bacteria. Listeria was found on 20p, 50p, and £1 coins, as well as bank notes.

“One of the most shocking discoveries was finding so many microorganisms thriving on metal, an element you wouldn’t normally expect to see germs surviving on”, says Dr Paul Matewele, professor of microbiology at London Metropolitan University. “The bugs have adapted to their environment, resulting in coins becoming a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.”

And it seems the hygiene factor is crucial for other businesses. “Hygiene is paramount, and handling cash is not ideal when promoting a healthy dining environment”, says Purezza. “By going cashless, we can avoid potential cross contamination.” 

Cardless for the cash-rich?

So while going cashless may seem like a positive choice, is it an elitist one? Some might say that by narrowing the payment methods you provide, you instantly exclude certain customers from your business. Jane Pendlebury, CEO of HOSPA, says: “For those businesses who wish to continue using cash, it means that no customer is excluded – for those people who may prefer to use cash, it means they are able to do so, giving freedom of choice to the customer.”

She says that children, the elderly and foreign visitors are just some of those who could be “left behind” if more businesses go cashless. “Many people while travelling also prefer to use cash, as their banks may charge for transactions made abroad. If venues were to go completely cashless, this may also exclude some overseas visitors, which can be a huge target market for many outlets.”

Business owners should also be wary of a survey that predicted over eight million adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society. The Access to Cash research concluded, quite simply, that the UK “is not ready to go cashless”. “Technology doesn’t yet work for everyone,” said Natalie Ceeney, chair of Access to Cash. “Our research shows that if we fail to plan and prepare for it properly, a cashless society would do significant harm to the millions of people who would be left behind.”

Then, of course, by placing our faith in digital payments, we are placing our faith in technology. And despite the age that we live in, technology is never completely infallible. Just look at June 2018, where a VISA outage shook businesses across the UK and Europe. The outage, caused by a hardware failure, resulted in 5.2 million Visa transactions failing to process, with 1.7 million UK cards affected. If you want to build a business on digital land, the foundations may not always be stable.

But despite this all, do industry insiders believe that hospitality will be cash-free in the near future? 

“Yes it will”, says Cozens. “We love to be ahead of the game, and the majority if not all of our stores will likely go the same way over time”. Pendlebury also sees it as a “growing trend”, while Lewis says that she is “certainly looking to introduce it across our other and future sites, as we really have found it beneficial”.

Hospitality businesses will “absolutely” go cash-free, concludes Farrell. “I think that in five years time most mainstream hospitality will likely be cashless. There will always be exceptions for various reasons, but the world is certainly moving in that direction.” 

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