Why the San Francisco Proposal to Ban Cashless Stores Matters

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone in San Francisco has a smart phone, a credit card, and an Amazon account. District Five Supervisor Vallie Brown wants you to think about that.

In February, Brown introduced legislation that would require brick and mortar stores in San Francisco to accept cash. “For many City residents (for example, those who are denied access to credit, or who are unable to obtain bank accounts), the ability to purchase goods and services depends on the ability to pay for those goods and services in cash," Brown wrote in a memo. "This is especially true of the very poor." Originally, the proposal only applied to stores with cashiers, but Brown announced she would expand the language to include cashierless businesses, i.e., the new Amazon Go convenience stores in the city.

How many people would be excluded by cash-free businesses? It’s hard to tell, but keep in mind that the city’s 2017 homeless census, (called the Point In Time Count), found 7,499 homeless people in the city. The 2019 count happened in January, but the results have not been released. Even among residents with homes, some people—either by choice or by circumstance—don’t have bank accounts. Consider the nationwide statistics: In 2017, approximately 6.5 percent of American households, (about 14.1 million adults), did not have a primary bank account, according to US News & World Report. Last year, USA Today reported that more than a third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 37 do not have a credit card.

Then there are people who simply prefer the privacy that cash affords them. If you whip out a card or touchless payment every time you buy a coffee or a bagel, there will be a record of every time and place you bought a coffee or a bagel. Maybe you don’t want that?

But where customers may see a hurdle, businesses see opportunity. Cash-free transactions are faster with fewer errors. Cash-free stores are less likely to be robbed. Going cash-free can save businesses money—an important consideration when local brick and mortar shops are fighting to survive.

So which side should prevail? While the small number of cashless stores in the city shouldn’t pose a substantial obstacle to cash-only customers right now, that could change if more businesses make the switch to cashless. Regardless of whether the Board decides to allow cashless stores to operate in San Francisco, the issue remains more nuanced than a preference for paper or plastic. No matter who wins, good people will lose.