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On the evening of Tuesday, May 7, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban cashless policies at brick-and-mortar retail stores and restaurants, adding that city's weight to the political pushback against the imposition of card-only payment requirements by retailers and restaurants.
The legislation includes carve-outs for certain types of businesses, including food trucks and pop-up stores, which will still be permitted to operate on a cash-only basis.
The bill, sponsored by Supervisor Vallie Brown, levies escalating fines (starting at between $50 and $100 for the first offense) against retailers and restaurants that refuse to allow customers to pay with cash. The vote signifies a growing number of cities and states moving to ban the practice, following cashless bans in recent weeks by the state of New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia.
"For Supervisor Brown, it’s imperative that all San Franciscans have access to the goods and services that are available to some San Franciscans," Derek Remski, a legislative aide to Brown, said in a telephone interview with Mobile Payments Today, a sister publication of ATM Marketplace.
Remski said that cashless stores do harm to vulnerable populations, including the elderly, communities of color and young people who are often unbanked and don’t have access to credit. He said that cashless policies harken back to an era in this country when certain populations were excluded from public accommodations.
He added that retailers such as Amazon, operator of Amazon Go stores, and restaurants such as Sweetgreen acknowledged Brown's effort as a noble one because they realized that the cashless policy could reduce access to necessary services.
"The future may be cashless, but in the meantime we can’t have businesses that have a 'no cash allowed' sign," Remski said.
San Francisco has seen a significant number of businesses go cashless in recent years, in part due to the city’s proximity to major Silicon Valley companies whose employees tend to be early adopters of tech innovations such as mobile payments.
A movement toward autonomous cashless checkout has been epitomized in recent years by Amazon Go, the cashierless convenience store concept developed by e-commerce retailer Amazon. Amazon operates three Amazon Go stores in San Francisco, and a total of approximately one dozen stores nationwide, including four in Chicago, four in Seattle, and as of Tuesday in New York City, a newly opened location at Brookfield Place in Manhattan.
The cashierless Amazon Go model employs innovations that include computer vision and artificial intelligence to keep track of a customer's selections. (Though cashierless, the Amazon Go locations do have an employee on hand to answer questions and assist customers who need help navigating the store.)
Shoppers using the Amazon Go mobile app simply select sandwiches, drinks and other items from store shelves and walk out through a turnstile-type exit where prices are automatically totaled and charged to a payment card linked to their mobile account.
However, due to legislative pressure — including in New York, where a proposal to ban cashless merchants is pending before the city council — and perhaps to avoid negative publicity, Amazon recently agreed to modify the Amazon Go model to accept cash.
The New York store opened as the only cash-accepting Amazon Go location to date. Instead of checking in via a mobile app before shopping, cash-paying customers are "swiped" into the store by the employee, who also takes cash payments at a counter.
Another autonomous checkout store in San Francisco, operated by Standard Cognition, also provides a fast cashierless experience for shoppers, however the company built into its model the ability to accept cash payment from customers.
Standard Cognition, which sells autonomous checkout technology to other retailers, told Mobile Payments Today that retailers had sought to use autonomous checkout, but did not want to eliminate cash altogether.
Sweetgreen, a cashless fast casual restaurant, agreed to begin accepting cash locally after the Philadelphia ban was passed, and plans to accept cash at all its locations nationwide starting in July.
David Jones is a veteran business and technology journalist, with three decades of experience writing about business travel, real estate and technology.
Since 2015 he covered a range of technology stories for the ECT News Network, which includes the E-Commerce Times, TechNewsWorld, LinuxInsider and CRM Buyer, writing about cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, machine learning, open source computing and privacy issues among others,. He recently covered FinTech issues for PYMNTS.com.
He worked as a staff writer for Bloomberg Business News and an online reporter for Crain’s New York Business. He has written for numerous media organizations, including Reuters, The New York Times, The Real Deal, Continental, City Limits and The Nation.
He was previously awarded the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color by the Independent Press Association.