Cash, staff and people free retail

What do you do when your cafe staff are taking money from the till? Last week the owners at my favourite Bermondsey coffee shop Crol & Co. went cashless. ‘Shrinkage’ is down and turnover has held up. No more trips to the bank, simpler accounting and no more change nightmares. Everyone is a winner surely?

Not according to legislators in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington who are introducing bills that would require retailers to accept cash in their stores. They are part of a growing US anti-cashless movement which is fighting the segregating impacts of cashless technology on people who do not have the credit cards and smart phones needed to shop these stores.


As more stores go cashless and in many cases staff-less around the world, the US legislation speaks to the need for more holistic thinking about the impacts of new retail technology on society.


The rise of staffless retail

Much has been made of the decline of the high street in the UK as more and more people migrate to online stores. How will the high street feel when the only stores left have no staff?

Humans are expensive, fragile and sometimes unreliable components in an increasingly mechanised global retail machine. Who wouldn’t want to remove them if the technology allowed it? If I can walk in and out of a store and collect my purchases without pausing to pay or interact with a staff member, surely my everyday grocery shop will be better?


The answer depends on who you ask.

I was in Seattle recently on a retail project. We went to Seattle because, as Amazon’s home city, it has some of the most advanced staffless and cashless stores in the world. The fieldwork involved doing grocery shopping with people. As sometimes happens in research one of my participants did not quite match the profile we were recruiting against. John, as I will call him, was in a halfway house and not with the wife and child he was billed as sharing a home with in the recruitment details. He was out of work, living on benefits. He shopped groceries with food stamps.

We took the bus to the discount store where John did his weekly food shop. John knew the driver and we chatted on the way. When we got there the store wasn’t much to look at, but it had an atmosphere. The staff were not slick, but they were friendly. Everyone smiled and talked as we worked our way through the aisles. This messy store was the antithesis of the immaculate, staff-less and cashless spaces we found downtown.


Chatting to John on the way back home it turned out he had lost his development job and his family due to mental health issues. He was sorting himself out, but one of his biggest challenges was loneliness. He looked forward to the shopping trip and the face to face interactions he experienced along the way. His shopping trips gave shape to his weeks and gave him rare opportunities to speak with people.

American Psychologist Dr Susan Pinker has described social isolation as “the public health risk of our time”. And a recent report from Brigham Young University compared lack of involvement with community to smoking in terms of its threat to health.


The social and community value of store staff

Good store staff play a positive community role. They provide points of human contact for people. They help mitigate the risk of isolation. The staff in the discount store I visited with John gave him something to look forward to. This societal and community value is hard to measure on balance sheets, but it should not be underestimated.


It is easy to dismiss staffless stores as tech company experimentation, but Amazon has big plans for its smaller Go store format, and earlier this month the Wall Street Journal reported on it testing cashierless store technology for larger stores around 40,000 square feet.

The importance of this market is highlighted by the big retailers’ reactions to the threat of cashless legislation. In New Jersey, in a strange alliance of old and new tech, Amazon and Walmart are battling to block the legislation passing. As the world’s shopping giants collide in their bids to shape the frictionless high street of the future, we need to be mindful of the impacts associated with removing both cash and staff from the retail equation.

What is good for retailers in terms of efficiencies and data collection may not be beneficial to our communities into the future. Cash ensures shops stay accessible to all. And humans may be unwieldy and expensive parts of the retail machine, but they create store experiences whose value goes beyond the shop floor to positively impact the communities around them. As legislators focus on blocking the rise of cashless stores they should be looking at the value of human presence too. The risk of stores losing humans is perhaps even greater than the threat of losing cash.


// Tom Rowley