How close are we really to a cashless society?

The financial technology media is continually full of facts and figures on how many consumer transactions these days are completed in a cashless manner – with a swipe of a card, by using contactless or online.

Over 340 billion non-cash payments were undertaken globally in 2014, according to figures from the Bank of International Settlements. This marked a nine percent rise from 2013.  The total value of these transactions are estimated at a total of $883 trillion, while card payments were the most common, with 210 billion transactions.

Given these figures, many people are forecasting that the world will be cashless by around 2050.  That however is looking a bit more uncertain for a variety of reasons.

The apparent shift to cashless

Despite all the talk of a “cashless” economy, figures from MasterCard Cashless show cash still actually accounts for around 85 per cent of global consumer transactions. If we link this to the Bank of International Settlements data this would imply that 1,163 billion consumer payments are made in cash, potentially totalling a whopping $3,000 trillion. That’s almost 4 times the value of non-cash payments.

Central banks and some governments are often seen a supporters of a cashless society, as there are ongoing costs to producing currency and coins. It could also be argued that some banks want full visibility and audit trails of all consumer spending which raises many arguments from both sides. For example, a fully cashless society would give governments unprecedented access to information into consumer spending, which again raises some questions.

One country that was often referenced as being ahead of others in the cashless journey is Sweden.  They have such a low percentage of cash transactions that some stores don’t even accept it anymore. For a time, it did in fact look like Sweden would be the first nation to become truly cashless, paving the way for other nations to follow suit. Banks were keen to move consumers away from cash.  In a very interesting move the Swedish government has put a halt to the full adoption and removal of cash.  There was a recognition that things were moving at too fast a pace and that ultimately it is consumers who should be able to decide how they pay, particularly the unbanked population.

Cash withdrawals increasing in volume and value

The continued demand for cash is reflected in the fact the ATM install base continues to grow. Retail Banking Research’s Global ATM Market Forecasts to 2020 found that the current ATM install base was reported as three million, but this is predicted to grow even further in the next five years, reaching four million by 2020. As a result of this, the amount of cash being withdrawn from ATMs is actually increasing significantly. Again, something you don’t hear about much.

It’s not only the value of cash that’s growing – something that could be put down to inflation – but also the volume of transactions. There were 92 billion cash withdrawals made at ATMs worldwide in 2014, according to the report, up a whopping five per cent from 87 billion in 2013 and 12 per cent from 81 billion in 2012.

This means there are 174,000 cash withdrawals at an ATM globally every minute, or 2,906 cash withdrawals done around the world every second.

And it’s not just the volume, but the value of cash withdrawals that is increasing. Over $14 trillion was withdrawn from ATMs in 2014 – up four per cent from the previous year. This equates to $27 million being withdrawn from ATMs around the globe every minute, or $446,000 every second.

There are still many situations in which many people still want some cash in their pocket. In a restaurant, pub, paying friends, charity donations, gifts, or for many small payments (although person-to-person payment schemes are trying to change this!) Also when looking to budget or even teach kids the true value of money, nothing comes close to actually dealing with notes and coins.

Digital mobile wallet adoption slower than expected

A commonly proposed alternative cash is the so-called ‘digital wallet on a smartphone. The new functionality being offered by the liks of Apple Pay and its Samsung and Google alternatives allow consumers to hold their smartphone up to a payment terminal instead of swiping their card. Early indicators are that adoption of these solutions hasn’t been as high as their backers hoped.

Despite the fact that they’re secure and easy to use, a lot of us simply. don’t like them. As CNBC news reported, only about one in five iPhone users have ever tried Apple Pay. Part of the reason for low adoption may be that a digital wallet doesn’t solve a problem. Paying with a credit card remains easy and familiar so it may be that consumers are continuing to pay with this method.

The future – cash and cashless together

So in summary – will we go cashless anytime soon? Probably not. Consumers seem to appreciate the ease and convenience of having choice so things like PayPal, our debit cards and a little bit of cash all together in the consumer payments mix.  If the world does ever go cashless, it’s likely to be a slow evolutionary process.  Remember – over $400,000 comes out of ATMs every second and is then used for spending.

Cash is clearly still important to consumers.  It’s trusted, secure, reliable and has a tangible sense of worth, particularly handy when budgeting. Yes, a society with more electronic transactions may appear in time, but likely not to the overall decline of the ATM and cash.
What may transpire is a very interesting world of ATM and mobile convergence and a stronger focus on an omni-channel experience where consumers have a choice of transactions.

Written by Colin Gordon

Colin Gordon

Colin Gordon is a Global ATM Marketing Manager based at NCR’s R&D Center in Dundee, Scotland. Colin is responsible for the marketing of NCR’s financial hardware portfolio with a specific focus on activities such as demand generation, sales enablement, market analysis and customer engagements for the ATM business.

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