2012.12 | The End of Money?

Having finished The End of Money last week, I can recommend it as a useful overview of all of the issues concerning a move to a cashless (or cash “less”) society.   I was particularly taken with the concept that all of us perceive and hold true the “value” of paper money, though effectively it is our faith in monetary instruments like cash that gives us that perception of value and nothing more.

We are so close to our money and monetary system, that we rarely stop to think about it.  The book underscored that point for me more than any other.  Money and gold are really just proxies of value that we perceive as instruments that can ‘hold’ value for us over time and make value transferable.  Taking the time to think about it, it’s quite incredible that we have somehow all agreed to this arrangement as a society; but we have.

I was also deeply affected by reading ‘Digital wallet’ will transform smartphone and how we spend in the Globe and Mail last week.  While the article revealed nothing new and was sketchy on details, the vitriole in the 335 comments was somewhat disconcerting.  Many of the comments from unsurprisingly anonymous accounts expressed outright hostility towards the idea.

While I have been enthusiastically anticipating and already using digital alternatives to cash, there are many individuals who are vehemently against a digital wallet.  As described in “The End of Money”, there are massive and pervasive concerns around this technology in the general public.

Some concerns outlined in the 335 Globe and Mail comments included:

  • being forced to use a particular payment network
  • transactions being tracked by banks, government, network owners and others
  • no privacy for transactions
  • account numbers and value being stolen
  • being forced to have and use a mobile device
  • being forced to use a mobile network like Rogers, Bell or Telus and paying them a cut of transactions
  • providing no additional value to citizens
  • ‘hackers’ taking over the system (by the way, the terms hackers and cyber anything have to be removed from the common lexicon – this is not the age of the information superhighway)
  • criminals stealing account information just from proximity the owner (NFC)
  • what to do when there is no electricity or your mobile device has no power
  • corporate organizations usurping or becoming a crucial transport to the sovereign responsibility of government for currency
There are many rational arguments in this list.  Almost all of them are issues today based on debit and credit payments.  Replace mobile device with card or mobile carrier with bank or processor, and the concerns are almost identical, be it a mobile wallet or a debit or credit card.
And yet, as I also found in The Future of Money, cash is not a panacea.  While cash can potentially provide anonymous, electricity free portability and ease of transaction in a way that no current widely used electronic format can, there are many issues around the complexity of cash – though they are more apparent to retailers to consumers.
In Canada we have had numerous reminders of the complexity of cash, but most consumers don’t think about them as complexities.
  • On March 26, a new $50 note was released to reduce counterfeiting of large denominations and increase acceptance of these notes.
  • Last week it was announced that pennies will be no longer be minted, and will be removed from circulation in Canada to save the cost of producing them – which has exceeded their value for some time.
  • The Royal Canadian Mint is in the midst of releasing new versions of the $1 and $2 coin (okay, loonies and toonies) which replace nickel composition with steel – once again, to reduce the cost of minting.

For most, these are news items for discussion with friends and colleagues.   For retailers and other consumer facing organizations, these are logistical issues that have to be carefully considered and dealt with.  Vending machines, self-checkouts, self service kiosks, cash drawers, cash counting equipment, counterfeiting measures, store associate training, taxes on purchases, rounding to five cents on cash purchases, end of day balancing procedures, and more all have to be considered.  All of them require time, effort, and more cost.

While the average consumer may consider these issues irrelevant to them, these are costs that are passed on to them one way or another.  If a retailer can find a way to deal with transacting more cheaply in a way that suits a target market, they should do so, tradition or no, and use that competitive advantage to win business.

So, what is the answer?  The answer is choice.

The issue I had with the comments on the Globe and Mail article was that people were basically responding as though they are being told cash is being eliminated and they have to use an electronic wallet.  That is not the case.  There will be cash, there will be debit and there will be credit for the foreseeable future.  There will also be electronic wallets.  These digital modes of transaction are currently options; not requirements.

There are all sorts of people and transactions in the world, and they should all be able to transact in the manner that they wish.  Cash, Debit, Credit and eWallets can all play a role.  [Don't believe the eWallet hype? - check out mPesa.]

Electronic wallets are imperfect for many reasons.  It’s absolutely true.  So are debit and credit cards.   There is fraud, there is theft, there are many inconveniences associated with using cards.  And yet 65-70% and more of many Canadian retailers’ transactions are made via debit and credit.

Somewhere, somehow, somebody is going to evaluate the list of bullets in this post and see opportunity; see a missed chance to do things better.  With emerging technologies, and changing consumer attitudes to mobile and electronic transactions, it’s only a matter of time until mobile digital wallet options become a bigger proportion of the payments people make.

As retail technology professionals, we should ensure that all of the infrastructure we put into place provides the flexibility to accommodate future payment modalities – whatever they may be.  Reading “The End of Money” provides a great background on why we should be ready for these new payment models.  Understanding the history helps to drive us into the future.

From my perspective, the Government of Canada is responsible for the money supply including the Bank of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint.   They should be considering how Canada can move from a cash based society to a cashless society.  They should remember that they are not printers or minters – they represent monetary value in Canada and should continue to play that role electronically if it suits their constinuents.   They have already made a jump moving to polymer from paper.  Perhaps their next move should be silicon.

All of the national banks around the world should be considering this or find a way to harness private enterprises in this effort – before Apple-Square-Google-Paypal-Starbucks-BumpPay-GeodeWallet or others do it for them.

Update:  The Royal Canadian Mint has obviously been thinking the same way.

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