For our the final project in Noticing, Ben wrote a noticing plan for me on the topic of cash vs. credit transactions in New York. I've been interested in understanding why so many businesses, especially in the West Village, only accept cash. Back in Los Angeles nearly every restaurant, store and bar accepted credit or debit cards. So why not New York?
I started to explore this phenomenon when I was working on Change You Can Believe In last semester. With Noticing under my belt, I thought it might be interesting to look at the situation again, using the more defined tools we discussed in class.
Ben suggested that I work on a few exercises to notice new things:
Interview workers at a cash only business
- What should I do if I only have a card?
- How close is the nearest ATM?
- What is the worker's attitudes about people who don't carry cash?
- What do workers say to perspective credit customers?
Working with Rob, some additional questions were presented:
- Try using cards at cash businesses and see how they handle the situation
- What if you have cash but not enough? What is it like to be denied a transaction? What if you stand your ground? Will they let you come back and pay later?
Observe customers and workers at a cash only business for 20 minutes
- Count the number of people who try to use cards but can't
- Do the visitors look like they live locally or are visiting?
- How to people respond to being told they can't use cards?
- Focus group about "the meaning of credit and cash"
- Try operating a business with only cash or only cards
- What types of signs do businesses use to communicate how you can pay?
Time limitations made it difficult to execute the entire plan. But I was able to visit a cash only location, a location that just started to accept credit cards and a location that uses Square Wallet.
The folks at Joe's Pizza are about as 'New York' as you can get. And they don't appreciate folks trying to use credit cards. Interestingly, there is a Joe's Pizza (operated by the same family) in Santa Monica where I used to live. They take cards. I observed folks going to get pizza late in the evening as they were likely headed home from bars. Many of them, I assume, didn't have any more cash after spending it on drinks. Joe's has an ATM outside the store, and there were quite a number of people who ordered pizza and had to go back outside to get cash. Joe's is one of the most militaristic 'no cards' businesses I can think of in New York.
When I went to visit Nowhere on Friday, I walked up to the door and remembered I didn't have any cash. The bar is in one of those strange NYC ATM deserts. I had to cross the street to find an ATM. One of those weird Hyosung models that has an interface you might assume was created as a joke. You might also think it is going steal all your data and send it to China. After that ordeal, I entered the bar and broke my 20 on a 2 dollar beer. Some number of inexpensive watered down drinks later, I noticed a card terminal next to the antique cash machine. I thought at first it was for gift cards (like Joe's Coffee, that has the capability to accept card shaped gift cards but not credit cards). In reality, the bar had decided to start taking cards!
But not so fast! There is a $20 dollar minimum spend. Thanks to the CARD act or one of those similar recent legislations, that's permitted. So that means I would have had to down at least 10 Bud Light pints before being able to pay my tab. The Microsoft Word (or publisher?) sign also warned that I would automatically be charged a 20 percent gratuity if I forgot to close my tab.
That's not really a solution now is it? I don't really know what the margins are at a bar, I imagine not very high. But in the age of Square where it's a 2.75% fee or $275 monthly and no transaction fee, there must be a way to make this work. I always wonder how much these places are paying in fees, especially in the age of Square. Seems like a possible expansion point for them, you already "pay with your name" when you have an open tab, so wouldn't Square wallet be perfect for a bar?
Finally a New York business that knows that a sale is a sale. With the wonderfully warm weather this past weekend, I made a visit over to the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop for some soft serve deliciousness. The store accepts cash, cards and also Square Wallet. Because they use Square to process their transactions, the business has the added benefit of allowing customers like me to "pay with my name." I have the Square Wallet app installed on my phone and after my first visit to the store I enabled the feature.
Now when I go in for a cone, I don't even need to pull my phone or card out of my pocket. Using my geolocation, Square knows I'm in the shop and when the cashier rings up my order. After having a pretty good experience with the staff, I was even able to add a gratuity, after I left the shop.
It seems that the situation is a bit more complex than just accepting credit cards. For me, it's significantly easier to budget when I know exactly where and when I'm spending money. Cash doesn't come with those analytic tools and I don't have the bandwidth to track that stuff on my own.
Square has the right idea, there is something kind of magical (and potentially dangerous) about making transactions this effortless. Quite the contrast to some other services. (I'm looking at you LevelUp, where I've yet to find a retailer that actually has a working kiosk)
My limited exploration of this Noticing plan didn't uncover exactly why so many businesses in NYC don't accept credit cards. I don't want to assume it's because they don't want to pay all their taxes. Who would be that inconsiderate? Perhaps customers in New York just don't demand card acceptance enough?