Tuesday: bill protects your right to pay cash

As stores in many cities start to close their doors to consumers who prefer cash to credit, a Rhode Island lawmaker is trying to protect your right to shop as a cash-paying customer. Today, while most stores continue to welcome payment in greenbacks, a minority of retailers are trying to tell consumers that their store won’t accept payment except by
Photo for Tuesday: bill protects your right to pay cash

Published on February 4, 2019
By Randall Rose

As stores in many cities start to close their doors to consumers who prefer cash to credit, a Rhode Island lawmaker is trying to protect your right to shop as a cash-paying customer. Today, while most stores continue to welcome payment in greenbacks, a minority of retailers are trying to tell consumers that their store won’t accept payment except by credit card or app. Rep. Mia Ackerman’s bill H5116, which is likely to see a contested public hearing in the State House on Tuesday, protects consumers by requiring brick-and-mortar retail establishments to accept cash as one of the allowable payment methods.

Some customers prefer cash and others prefer credit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when a small percentage of retail stores start telling consumers they can’t even pay in cash, it causes a lot of problems.

One of the groups who are shut out by a refusal to take cash is lower-income unbanked people, who have no credit cards. That may be part of the reason why certain stores are refusing to take cash, so that poorer people won’t shop there, although of course stores don’t say that directly. I find it troubling that one restaurant chain, Sweetgreen, talks about “cleanliness” as a reason for rejecting cash; they claim that not accepting cash makes “team members safer amid the risk of robbery and improves the cleanliness and efficiency of the restaurants”. I find it hard to believe that their rejection of cash customers is so driven by a concern for their employees’ safety and for cleanliness.

In any case, it’s not just poorer people who don’t have credit cards; many seniors, teenagers, and others don’t have credit cards either, and will end up getting shut out of no-cash stores. Perhaps some stores feel it’s worth shutting out various groups of customers in order to look more exclusive. But is that the kind of society we want to live in?

Retailers may figure that a lot of customers who prefer cash can still be pressured into using credit if the store demands that. But that imposes a lot of problems that the customer is left to deal with. Many of us make a practice of paying in cash because we don’t want the empty-calorie temptation of paying by credit, which makes it too easy to spend money we can’t afford.

And many of the credit cards out there are abusive, with unnecessary fees and high interest rates that may, in some cases, start piling up the day after the purchase is made. I suppose credit card companies will always be able to cajole millions of consumers into being in hock to these abusive sorts of cards, but if you’re one of these consumers trying to pay cash to avoid your credit card’s high charges, it just becomes harder to get your life back on track when stores try to force you to pay credit.

In today’s society, companies use machine-learning systems to analyze each individual consumer’s behavior and to predict how vulnerable that consumer will be to various marketing tricks. When you pay by credit card or app, your purchasing behavior can be tied to you as an individual and can be used to build more of a profile of how you act. And that helps the companies on the other end become more efficient in how they deal with you, finding deals to offer you that capture more of your money while providing more cheaply-produced products in return. One reason many of us use cash is so that our purchases can’t be used to build a profile that gives away negotiating advantages to the companies we deal with. Requiring people to pay by credit card or app is just a way to force consumers to surrender valuable information about themselves without them getting any compensation for it.

Right now, I suppose, paying by credit card is about as easy as paying by cash, depending on the person — some people pay more swiftly by cash and others pay more swiftly by credit. There are times when you’re stuck in line behind someone who has to go through the multiple steps involved in paying by credit, swiping the card, swiping it again, pressing the green button, then clicking through the extra questions that the system tacked on about whether to get a paper or email receipt. But the process is likely to get more and more cumbersome in future, once cash is no longer an option. You’ll try to pay with your card or your app, and after clicking and swiping through the authorization process, the systems will start popping up more offers and ads that you have to go through before your payment is processed. It’ll make buying a plane ticket look easy by comparison. I think it’s best to keep cash payment available as a simple, easy competitive alternative to credit, so that abusive corporations can’t gradually increase the number of marketing messages and offers that they foist on us at the moment we make a digital payment.

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VISA, the credit-card system, has offered some retailers $10,000 payments if they deny customers the right to use cash. I see why VISA’s doing this, and if it profits them enough to do that, they can push retailers to push us into credit. But it isn’t what many consumers or many retailers want, especially since credit payments also require retailers to accept economically unfavorable terms from megacorporations like VISA. A law requiring retailers to accept cash helps to shift power away from purchase-tracking companies like VISA and shifts power back to the old personal relationship between consumers and stores, which many consumers and many stores consider valuable.

Rep. Ackerman’s bill H5116, to require retail establishments to accept cash payment, is having a hearing Tuesday at 4:30 or later in the House Corporations Committee, Room 203 of the State House. Members of the public can sign up to speak and offer their comments, since lobbyists will certainly be trying to stop this bill. Or you can email a comment to the House Corporations Committee clerk Lou Mansolillo, (mention bill H5116).

People are succeeding in getting laws passed on this. Last week, a similar bill to require retailers to accept cash passed the New Jersey Legislature nearly unanimously, and Gov. Phil Murphy is deciding whether to sign it. Massachusetts has had a similar law on the books since 1978, though their Attorney General has been unwilling to enforce it much. I hope people will speak out on this week’s Rhode Island bill.

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