March 8, 2019
Starting July 1, Philadelphia will become the first major U.S. city to ban cashless stores—putting it at squarely in the middle of a debate that is pitting retail innovation against consumers who either want to keep their options open or who don’t have a payments card.
According to a March 7 report by The Wall Street Journal, legislation just passed in Philadelphia will require most retail stores to accept cash. With the exception of some businesses, the ordinance will prohibit most retail locations from refusing to take cash or charging cash-paying customers a higher price. Those who violate the law will face fines of as much as $2,000.
Proponents of the new ban argue that cashless stores effectively discriminate against poor consumers who do not have access to credit or bank accounts. Indeed, Philly.com reports, nearly 6 % of residents in the Philadelphia region were unbanked in 2017; and roughly 22% were considered “underbanked,” according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
Of course, there will be some exceptions: JDSupra notes that businesses not subject to the new rules include parking lots and garages; wholesale clubs (e.g., BJ’s and Costco); stores that exclusively sell using a “mobile device application” through a “membership model” (will cashierless Amazon Go convenience stores qualify?); certain rentals where “collateral or security is typically required;” and sales exclusively to employees on an employer’s premises. None of these terms are defined and don’t hold your breath until regulations are promulgated.
And Philly is not the only locale thinking that paper money is not going out of style anytime soon: A New York City councilman is pushing similar legislation there, and New Jersey’s legislature recently passed a bill banning cashless stores statewide. A spokesperson for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, declined to comment on whether he would sign it.
What’s more, Massachusetts has gone the furthest on the issue and is the only state that requires retailers to accept cash.
Businesses that have gone cashless to date point to greater efficiency for employees, who don’t have to make change or count cash at closing time, and improved safety because workers don’t have to carry large bank deposits, The Wall Street Journal says.
Philadelphia City Councilman William Greenlee, a Democrat, said he was inspired to introduce the bill after noticing that some Center City sandwich shops had gone cashless.
“Most of the people who don’t have credit tend to be lower income, minority, immigrants. It just seemed to me, if not intentional, at least a form of discrimination,” he told the Journal. Now, he said, stores will be required “to do what businesses have been doing since Ben Franklin was walking the streets of Philadelphia.”
Sylvie Gallier Howard, a top official in the city’s Commerce Department, told City Council members last month she hoped the ban proves to be temporary. “Modernization is going to happen with or without Philadelphia, and we want to be part of it,” she said.
The National Retail Federation, a trade group that represents the retail industry, opposes the new Philadelphia law and proposals like it, saying businesses should be able to choose which payment methods to accept. Cashless stores are uncommon in the United States and many businesses prefer cash payments because they avoid the credit-card transaction fees, it said.
The measure also has been opposed by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, while the city’s Commission on Human Relations and a number of community groups support it.
Research contact: @scottmcalvert