Several months ago, I wrote about the unintended consequences of trying to make positive social change in business, after the company I work for banned plastic straws and got some well-deserved pushback from advocates for people with disabilities. The recent news about the fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen reversing its cashless policy because it excluded some customers has brought the subject back into the spotlight.
I work in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the idea of cashless payments is practically deified. My smartphone-toting colleagues prepay for Sweetgreen on the daily and trek together through downtown Palo Alto to skip the line and pick up their salads for lunch. They rave about the simplicity of using the well-designed app to browse, customize, pre-order, and pay — without ever having to talk to a human! The customer service aspect of this sounds great: simple, fast, and easy for the customer, and more secure for the business.
Cashless payment seems like a win-win — except for some customers, it isn’t.
Cashless businesses create barriers for the nearly 30 percent of Americans who have either no or limited access to bank accounts or who don’t have credit cards (also about 30 percent of Americans). Minorities, immigrants, and senior citizens are among those most affected. New Jersey and Massachusetts have already outlawed cashless restaurants and retailers, and Philadelphia’s ban on cashless will go into effect as of July 1. Civic leaders in New York, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco are also considering similar bans. Amid backlash, retail behemoth Amazon has also walked back its policy and started accepting cash at its cashierless Go stores.
At the same time, there is growing recognition that alternative financial services are a real business opportunity. CapWay, a financial technology company founded by 29-year-old Sheena Allen, provides access to financial education, tools, and services to unbanked and underbanked people. Airfordable allows users to book airfare for a fraction of the cost up front, with no credit card, and pay down the balance in installments before the departure date — a sort of microlending for flights. Nova Credit has developed a “credit passport” to help people moving to the U.S. get access to credit, and Tala provides loans via a mobile wallet, both without the need for a FICO score.
Smart businesses want to serve all customers. After all, who knows which one will turn into the next Mark Cuban? The billionaire Shark Tank star at one point in his life didn’t have enough money to open a bank account; he has just invested $500,000 in Spare, a virtual ATM network for the underbanked. Ultimately, both businesses and communities can thrive when the needs of a wide spectrum of customers come first.