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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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June 8, 2020

Are Contactless Cards Having Their Moment?

This could be the moment Doug King has been waiting for. In February 2017, Doug blogged, "Wouldn't it be nice to tap and pay?" Back then, he reported his disappointment at not being able to use his "cool" card with contactless functionality. Today, my favorite consumer advice websiteOff-site link is calling contactless payments "the wave of the future." And according to VisaOff-site link, 31 million Americans tapped a Visa contactless card or digital wallet at the point of sale in March 2020, up from 25 million in November 2019. MasterCard projects that approximately 70 percent of its U.S. customers will have contactless cards by the end of 2022.

Dave Lott wrote last year that the speed of contactless card payments could make them as desirable—if not more desirable—than mobile payments. As Dave pointed out, "consumer payments is largely a total sum environment," so the rise of contactless could cannibalize other forms of payments like mobile. Continuing this line of thinking, I have been wondering if any rise in contactless card use could have an impact on the use of cash.


"Protect yourself while shoppingOff-site link," advises the Centers for Disease Control. "If possible, use touchless payment (pay without touching money, a card, or a keypad)."

Until a few months ago, the answer was clear: probably not much of an impact. Let's take a look at consumer behavior and survey responses in the pre-coronavirus environment.

  • First, an April 2020 paperOff-site link examined the behavior of 21,000 Swiss cardholders between 2016 and 2018. In the aftermath of receiving a contactless debit card, the Swiss cardholders increased their use of debit cards overall, especially for small-value payments. But the increase among the Swiss consumers was small. Most of the increase occurred among people who already were using their debit cards to pay. And Swiss account holders who used cash a lot—the researchers call them "cash lovers"—didn't change behavior. The researchers report that the average effect of receiving a contactless card was "underwhelming."
  • Second, in response to a hypothetical question in fall 2019 Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link, U.S. consumers reported they would likely in the future use contactless cards to pay at grocery stores, gas stations, and department stores—payees with a high proportion of card payments already. In other words, consumers would not change their choice of payment instrument; rather, they would change their choice of authorization method (tapping instead of dipping a card). Again, underwhelming when we think about any potential impact on cash.

But that was then. In spring 2020, the future is murkier. Do you think consumers' ideas about and use of contactless cards would be different today?

June 25, 2018

Down but Not Out

As I noted in my last post, consumer habits are sticky when it comes to cash. Despite the many ways to pay, consumers make almost one-third of payments (by number) in cash. But sometimes cash just isn't an option. You can't use cash to buy a snack on an airplane, for example. This week, I look at factors about merchants that constrain consumers' payment options, including their unwillingness to accept cash for in-person payments or their inability to accept cash for online payments. (My colleague Doug King touched on cashless locations a couple of weeks ago.)

At the in-person point of sale, merchants' willingness to accept a payment instrument could affect the prevalence of cash. Consumers obviously cannot use cash when merchants will not accept it. Recent headlines (here and here) suggest that some quick-service restaurants, coffee shops, and food trucks may be growing reluctant to accept cash. As an example, here's a picture of a sign on a San Francisco food cart in late May.

20180612_RPO_TOP_Cashless_image The flip side of a merchant's unwillingness to accept cash is the merchant's willingness to accept card payments for ever-lower dollar values. And indeed, the average dollar value of card payments is dropping. For instance, the average dollar value of an in-person, non-prepaid debit card purchase fell from $35 in 2012 to $32 in 2016 (Federal Reserve Payments Study: 2017 Annual Supplement). This trend could indicate that merchants are increasingly agreeable to accepting cards for small-dollar transactions.

Consumers show they are aware of evolving merchant acceptance. The 2017 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice reported that consumers rate credit and debit cards highest for acceptance, with cash coming in third. The survey asked respondents to rate how likely each payment method is to be accepted by stores, companies, online merchants, and other people or organizations.

At the online point of sale, cash is not an option. (However, Doug mentioned in that same post that at least one online retailer is trying to make cash possible.) The share of purchases made online is still small—just about 12 percent of retail goods and services by number (2017 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice). Yet over the past four years that share has steadily increased. Data about remote card purchases in the Federal Reserve Payments Study (2017 Annual Supplement ) show the growing importance of online purchases. As Jessica Washington noted in her post in early May, remote card purchases grew more rapidly from 2015 to 2016 than did in-person card purchases, measured by both number and value.

Despite these developments, cash continues to dominate quick purchases. In October 2016, consumers paid for about half of their fast food purchases with cash. They used cash for 62 percent of convenience store purchases (2016 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice).

Cash has had staying power over decades of technological innovation. It may be down, but it isn't out.

To learn more about consumer payment choices and preferences, visit the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's new consumer payments web pages that house a variety of surveys, studies, and research reports on the topic.

Photo of Claire Greene By Claire Greene, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

 

June 11, 2018

Consumer Habits and Cash Use

As my colleague Doug King pointed out last month, cash is not going away anytime soon, Yanny/Laurel notwithstanding. By number, almost one-third of U.S. consumer payments were made in cash in 2017. Every year since 2008, the Survey of Consumer Payment Choice has found that cash is consumers' most popular or next-most-popular way to pay.

Many factors underlie cash's resilience, including access, current shopping habits, consumer ratings, and demographics.

Universal access. Paypal's chief financial officer commented to the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, "I don't think we will ever be entirely cashless, maybe in large part because I don't know if we will ever be in a world that every person has a smartphone or a mobile device."

Shopping habits. Most purchases—nine in 10—are made in person, not online (2015 Survey of Consumer Payment Choice). And when shopping in person, consumers prefer cash for small-dollar transactions. Two-thirds of U.S. consumers report that they prefer cash for in-person payments of less than $10 (2016 Dairy of Consumer Payment Choice). Forty percent prefer cash for in-person payments between $10 and $25.

Consumer ratings. Consumers say cash is the most cost-effective way to pay. The Survey of Consumer Payment Choice asks respondents to rate the cost of using a particular payment method, taking into account that fees, penalties, interest paid, etc. can raise the cost of a payment method, while discounts and rewards can lower it.

Demographics. People with fewer payment options use cash. That includes low-income people who have less access to credit cards as well as people without bank accounts who have no access to non-prepaid debit cards. It also includes millennials, who used cash for almost 30 percent of their payments in 2016 (Diary of Consumer Payment Choice).

You probably already know that card payments dwarf cash payments—almost 60 percent of consumer payments are made with some type of card, whether it's debit, prepaid, or credit. Yet cash persists. Recently, a new acquaintance told me he "never" uses cash. As evidence, he reported that he had no cash in his pocket, explaining "that's because I used my last $2 to buy coffee this morning."

Hmm. What does this say about the health of cash? What Dave Lott wrote in 2016 is still true today: not dead yet.

Next post: Merchant acceptance and the use of cash

To learn more about consumer payment choices and preferences, visit the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s new consumer payments web page that houses a variety of surveys, studies, and research reports on the topic.

Photo of Claire Greene By Claire Greene, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

December 12, 2016

Making Sense of Dollars, Part II

The first of this two-part post took us back to the '60s and a BBC clip that assumed we'd be a cashless society by now, given it was the dawn of the digital age. A half-century later, we're hardly closer to being cashless, and those who predicted an end to cash have been replaced by those who argue that going cashless or to less cash is "for the best." This post recaps oft-cited reasons for abandoning cash, amending them with counterpoints. I trust market determinations more than I do the wisdom of the well-intended, and the free market seems to be in complete disagreement with those who assert we'd all be better off without cash.

  • Cash is expensive as a cost of acceptance for merchants.
    I've talked to many retailers—large and small—who prefer cash because they say it saves them money, especially when compared to credit cards. But what do they know? Many studies show that cash is neither universally nor unanimously the most expensive payment method. Indeed, there seems to be more evidence than not that cash is among the least expensive payment alternatives.
  • Cash makes tax evasion pervasive.
    First, tax evaders have options; cash is not their only tool. Second, tax evasion seems correlated to high taxes (see the National Bureau of Economic Research working papers 6903 and 8551; there are others). Reading further, I find tax evasion is less about opportunity (afforded by cash, for instance) and more about bad tax policy. A revolt was ignited and a great country was born amidst the perception that taxes were too high and unjust. Eliminating cash would not likely have stopped that rebellion, and it's unlikely to fix today's problem.
  • Cash complicates monetary policy.
    Cash can only complicate monetary policy when those making the policy want to use negative interest rates to achieve desired ends. To date, there is little to no evidence that this policy path is effective; certainly it's no panacea. That makes it premature if not fully misguided to decry cash. Even if the policy proves useful, eliminating bills may or may not make it more difficult for savers to hoard. I assert they'll find a way.
  • Cash encourages crime because it's too effective (too liquid, too widely used, "too anonymous").
    By that thinking, once cash is eliminated, we'll need to determine what to do about oxygen and water as there is overwhelming evidence that malefactors use these things to good effect as well. The point is, cash works well for the unjust but also for the just. It accounts for 40 percent of all transactions, as measured by the Boston Fed's survey of consumer payment choice. Here the anti-cash crowd backs off the cry of "cashless," running out a "less cash" compromise. Large notes, some say, are used far more often for illegal activities than not, and the proof seems to be TV shows, movies, and pop culture. Seriously. Don't we have to do better than that before dispensing with a primary bloodline for commerce? There is no denying that the untraceable nature of cash frustrates crime fighting; it also frustrates surveillance against the just. Those who value liberty are likely to continue to value the option to spend anonymously.

There is at least one official push to rid society of cash, and its sponsors include card networks, who would stand to benefit were cash to disappear. Anyway, legislating safety that overpromises and hides the harm it can do holds considerable risk.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

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