There's no question in my mind that the role of cash in more mature societies is declining, but it has a long way to go before it can be viewed as irrelevant or representative of former "quaint business practices."
For the past couple of weeks I have been travelling, working first out of a hotel in Nashville, and then boarding my RV and heading over the Rockies and deep into the Western deserts where I have since worked off of the RV's dinette. On this trip it's been just too obvious how deeply ingrained cash remains, and sometimes it is the most trivial of practices that remind us of just how much further our financial travels have to take us.
I've been getting that reminder every time I walk into any Starbucks establishment, as I am prone to do, despite an upgrade to in-RV K-cup brewing. But I continue to love the social aspect that Starbucks offers. I enjoy the insight that a quick glance of the store's occupants can provide: students gathered around an Apple, its logo backlit and easy to spot; businessmen with eyeglasses pushed atop their foreheads squinting to read messages on their smartphones; executives scanning computer bulletin boards, networking, doing everything they can to stay connected in an ever-expanding corporate world.
As anyone who has walked up to the counter of a Starbucks knows all too well, there's the ubiquitous jar for tips. No matter whether we produce a gift card or loyalty card or flash our Starbucks payment app under the scanner, we are still left to rummage through our pockets for the tip — and the cash jar is always stuffed with change and small bills.
I took a roundabout way to get to Las Vegas, my destination for this trip, where cash probably reigns supreme. Along the way I kept being surprised by just how much we still depend upon cash.
It was with this observation fresh in mind that I clicked on the features tab at ATM Marketplace and began skimming articles, only to come across a May 17 commentary by Mike Lee, "Future-proofing the ATM industry." By this time, I had arrived in Las Vegas, where the HP marketing event, "HP Discover," would be kicking off shortly (I was a guest of HP representing bloggers focused on the enterprise community), and i had some time to catch up on my reading.
Lee opened his commentary with a simple quotation from Jeffery Keith, executive VP of global operations at Cardtronics: "Surprise does not work." Then, referring to a current topic of discussion among ATM deployers — that of differential, or variable, ATM convenience fees — Lee wrote, "Surprise is never welcome in either the boardroom or the marketplace. That's because it increases uncertainty and confusion, the enemies of confidence."
Yes, uncertainty can definitely be the enemy of confidence. My 60-plus feet (18.4 meters) of RV and trailer can arguably be described as a "big rig." Indeed, that's what the Las Vegas RV Park I rolled up to said it was. Coming down the interstate highway, I had run into incredibly strong headwinds, such that each time the highway changed course, I took the winds on the beam — almost 500 square feet of it. That's a direct challenge to certainty and confidence.
Deeper into Lee's commentary, I came across another observation: "The global performance of cash is very robust." And a little further on: "ATM cash withdrawals will remain one of the major drivers of ATM growth in the next few years. RBR expects the global installed base of ATMs to increase 42 percent to 3.2 million terminals by 2016."
By this many? And so soon? The short answer is, "Yes." Actually, the RBR forecast could prove conservative once you factor in what's really happening with the economies of some emerging countries.
A colleague recently showed me a picture snapped inside the main terminal of Indonesia's Jakarta International Airport. As far into the distance as the camera lens could see, there stretched a line of ATMs with as many different labels as you could imagine. An almost continuous wall of ATMs, all competing for the attention of passengers arriving in Indonesia. At many airports, such installations have really put the pressure on local currency-exchange businesses.
Any arriving traveller can attest that uncertainty truly is the enemy of confidence — so before hailing a cab, it's better to stuff a few banknotes into a pocket than risk riding in a taxi that doesn't take credit cards.
Tips for coffee at a local Starbucks and taxi fares in foreign countries may not be absolute "markers" for what's really transpiring, but they are helpful pointers all the same.
I have lost count of just how many credit, debit, loyalty, gift, etc. cards I carry, but there's always a healthy number of bills in my wallet each time I head out the door to travel — domestic or international. Surprise does not work, just as uncertainty and confusion are clearly the enemies of confidence.
A truly cashless society any time soon? I just don't think so …