Our Cash-Free Future Is Getting Closer

The pandemic is propelling a shift toward a cashless society in ways that no other single event has, raising new calculations for merchants and enriching the digital payments industry

The pandemic is propelling a shift toward a cashless society in ways that no other single event has. Experts say that’s not necessarily a good thing.

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Tappit, which honed its sales pitch during the pandemic to promote “No more dirty cash,” has experienced a surge in interest by sporting arenas, hotels, and restaurants seeking to revive business quickly after lockdowns, said Jason Thomas, the chief executive.

“Some partners who were slightly fearful of going cashless have now decided this is an opportunity to do so,” Mr. Thomas said, noting that cashless technology allows lines to move faster and encourages more spending.“The pandemic has kind of ripped the Band-Aid off of going cashless,” he said.

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Tappit signed£20 million worth of new deals in the last two months, more than in any other period. “These are long-term contracts of between five to 10 years,” Mr. Thomas said. “That tells me that these organizations are never going back to cash.”

The authorities that manage the world’s currencies say the dangers of going fully cashless are rife. In tech-forward Sweden, cash has been that Parliament and the central bank asked commercial banks to keep bills and coins circulating while they figure out what a cash-free future would mean.

ImageA customer pays Mr. Mades with a card. Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York TimesConsumer groups warns that vulnerable people risk being marginalized. Many low-income earners and retirees, as well as some immigrants and people with disabilities, have little or no access to electronic payments and are increasingly shut out as banks cut back on A.T.M.s and customer service.

Central banks are looking at whether electronic currencies can replace physical cash. The Swedish Riksbank is testing a pilot version of a digital krona, or e-krona, that could keep the functions of a currency backed by the state.“In certain economies, there is still a role for cash, because it continues to provide a benefit and a utility,” said John Velissarios of Accenture, which is helping to manage the Riksbank’s test. “That’s where the concept of things like digital central bank money is interesting,” he said.

While virtual euros and dollars are still a ways off, the shift in attitudes toward real cash brought on by the pandemic is unlikely to be reversed.“Cash is not going to disappear,” said Mr. Jorgensen.“But it will continue to decline, and Covid is accelerating that trend.”

Théophile Larcher contributed reporting from Paris.