Will electronic payments and selfish humans eliminate small retail businesses?

If you’re like most of the population dear reader, you’re probably using less cash these days to pay for goods at your local retail stores. I certainly am. Apparently here in Oz, we’re one of the highest per capita users of electronic “tap n go” payments. Cash is declining rapidly.

This is causing problems for local retail stores, particularly those for which a website is not essential for business – dry cleaners, cafes, bakers, butchers, clothing stores and the like.

Now before the trolls attack me for claiming a retail store doesn’t need a website, what I’m saying is that online sales are not a major part of the revenue for these businesses. If they have one, it’s purpose is more for customer service, providing information and in some cases selling products.

These businesses make most of their money from passing foot traffic, not from customers driving from distant suburbs to buy their wares, or ordering goods remotely. I’m not going to order a coffee online and have it delivered by a bloke on a bike. I’ll go to the café and sit there to enjoy my cuppa and company.

I’ve owned and worked in a local family supermarket (many years ago) and a travel agency (only a couple of years ago), so have some hands-on experience. I’ve even been robbed of our weekly cash takings, which is not a nice experience.

One reason small business owners work the long hours they do – both at the store and after hours with stock and bookkeeping – is the undeclared cash they take from the business. Quite simply, if small business owners had to declare all their income, they might as well get a job working for someone else, as they lose too much in company and personal tax. The hourly rate of return is just not worth the effort. The less tangible reason for owning a small business is the “joy” of being your own boss.

One of my mates is the son of Greek migrants who moved to Australia after WW11. They fled the oppression of post-war Europe and opened one of the first espresso coffee shops in Sydney. My mate said his parents didn’t trust banks after their experiences back in the old country. When he was growing up, he thought everybody was like his family – when they wanted cash, they went to the garbage bags stored in the roof cavity of their home. That’s where his parents stored the financial takings from their café in which they worked 7 days a week.

Am going shopping will just get some cash from the roof…

I’ve recently been talking with retailers about the cash, or should that be, cashless issue. Another mate of mine owns a surf clothing store and is about to close its doors. He has spent a lifetime of more than 50 years in the rag trade. He said the reason for shutting up shop is threefold. It’s a perfect storm – lower cash income, online discounting and human nature.

The human nature is interesting. He said it is astonishing the number of people who use the store as a catalogue, trying on clothes, then photographing them and going online to buy them cheaper. Just confirms the old adage that people only care about one thing – themselves. This is why those two words “You” and “FREE” are still the most powerful words you can use in marketing communications.

I’ll see if I can buy this online – bugger the shopkeeper…

He is smart – he owns his building. So he has an asset he can sell or rent for income. But as he said, “every retailer used to carry a wad of cash in their pocket. Suppliers would always offer deals for cash, particularly if they wanted to offload remainder or excess stock. This made it easy for the retailer to make a decent profit on those goods, or throw in a bonus to loyal customers.

His store has a website, but it is not as good as it could be and like all retail websites, is not cheap to update and maintain. Yes, it generates additional revenue, but it also adds costs that didn’t exist previously in the P & L. It doesn’t pay for itself. So the more his business has moved to cashless payments, the less it is worth to him.

I suspect this small business closure trend will continue and the side effect will be the loss of convenience stores and other local retailers. Either that, or we will accept paying more for goods. Recent research revealed that humans pay more per item and spend more frequently when they use electronic payment devices, than when they use cash. Apparently we value cash more.

By nature, humans are lazy creatures – we prefer the path of least resistance. If the easiest way to buy something is to do so electronically with a swipe or tap, we will do it that way. Nothing new here:

Interestingly, a café I frequent in Brisbane still offers a discount for cash payment, while many restaurants in Chinatown only take cash. To save my teenagers carting cash around (and losing it) they now carry debit cards. My bride and I control the amount on the cards. My teens use them in the school canteen, or when out with friends at the beach, mall or movies.

But now one of the most frequent requests I get, both verbally and by text message is, “how much do I have on my card?” These “notifications” force me to check the accounts and top-up as required. And you guessed it, my teens relish the habit of “tap n go” and are spending more using these cards than if we restricted them to cash-only. Not sure I’ve done the right thing here?

Have to go now – need to top-up my daughter’s card so she can buy something like sushi rolls for lunch. It’s a long way from my once-a-fortnight vanilla slice treat when I was in high school…

Mmmmm, vanilla slice…


  1. Thanks Malcolm! Fascinating and thought-provoking “real world” post 🙂 On the consequences of “cashless”, there’s a “Sopranos” episode where a couple of the guys try to extort a local coffee shop…but the manager can’t pay because all the cash is controlled by head office! I confess that I am uneasy about the cashless trend…all too “Big Brother” for my liking.

    Your other point about retail…well, without wanting to lapse into consultant-speak too much :)…the digital disruption has destroyed the old retail traffic model. All too many retailers didn’t really understand how their business worked and where there traffic/customers came from. All too many didn’t really have a good relationship with their customers and now they have gone. I suspect we are going to see a period of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” with much of current retail vanishing and then new hybrid online/offline businesses cropping up with a very different cost structure. Part of the problem for retail, of course, is that they have been seen as a bit of a cash-cow for local government.

    Great post! Thanks again!

    Kevin Francis

    • Thanks Kevin, appreciate your comments. I read research at least 20 years ago that said if the underground economy in the USA collapsed (it’s all cash) there would be a global recession. I agree that a lot of the “brand” retailers based in malls who hire cheap student labour have customer issues, as the staff have zero care-factor. The small local businesses that know their community and provide good service are different, but will struggle without some sort of hybrid model. They just have to work out how to make the digital component profitable…

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