My Cashless Life

Oct 17, 2019

Earlier this year GDR SVP Alex Sbardella wrote about the inherent tension between the added convenience of a cashless world and the way it potentially alienates some of the most vulnerable people in society. This week, GDR Global Client Director Rachel Wilkinson opens up about her cashless experiment and reveals how it has revolutionised her life.

The woman in the tres hip nail bar asked if I wanted a flat white with my nails, and did I want soy, oat milk or skimmed? Combo beauty offerings are now de rigeur in London. Opposite this nail bar is the male equivalent, where you can get an authentic Turkish beard and nostril trim alongside your avo on sourdough with alfalfa sprouts. So when I came to pay for my neon-tipped shellac nails in what had seemed like a progressive establishment, the look of horror when I said I was paying by Apple Pay on my iWatch was a tad unexpected. We all know that nail and hair places prefer cash, but it’s not like digital payment is a new thing. I’ve even seen buskers on The Tube with Mondo QR codes and Tip Tap devices requesting digital donations.

I declared to the bemused nail lady that I was now operating a “cashless lifestyle” and so was unable to pay the old fashioned way. She was speechless/horrified/appalled (instead of being in awe/impressed/wowed by my futuristic way of life). She suggested I go to a cash point to withdraw money. I ruined this ploy by reminding her I didn’t even have a purse or any cards on me. (Ha! take that, Victorian nail lady). She stared at me blankly in disbelief. Why was this all such a surprise to her? Was I the only person to ever try and pay by iWatch or contactless?!



According to the banking industry body UK Finance, in 2019 one in 10 UK adults are already cashless, increasing to 17% in the 24-35 age group.

‘Cashless’ for me, means only my iWatch (and a quick double click into Apple Pay) is keeping me afloat. I use it every day to get to work on the Tube, for my morning coffees, at the outdoor food stalls at lunch time, for Ubers, in the gym and in shops. My iWatch is totally indispensable and frankly I cannot understand why more people have not seen the light, because the benefits of going cashless are numerous. Firstly, it’s actually very liberating. I left the house without even a handbag one day (horrors!) – just my phone in my pocket and iWatch on my wrist. I admit, I felt bare and like I had definitely “forgotten something”. But this anxiety faded as my freedom increased. Female friends who heard this reacted in total amazement; asking me where I kept my hairbrush and makeup bag (are they trying to tell me something!?) but I realised that I didn’t actually need any of that stuff. I guess men have lived like this for years, albeit using every pocket on their person to contain various bulky things that don’t really fit and chinking coins rubbing holes in their pockets.

Apart from the convenience factor, it’s also healthier: my bag (if I use one at all!) is now 70% lighter (easier on the back) and I can even downsize to what had seemed preposterously impractical before: a clutch bag!



I quickly realised that in a typical week, I very rarely spent more than £30 in a single transaction and even when I had considered spending more, the iWatch’s cash limit was actually a handy way to keep my splurges for shoes, dresses, anything sparkly that I probably (definitely) didn’t need, in check. A cashless, digital life also allows you to immediately see how much money you have, in what account, in what category (mortgage/bills/food/ stuff I don’t need, but really want) and helps you to oversee and manage how you are really spending. Whereas before, only the shopping bags gathering in my kitchen cupboard were the dirty evidence of my shopping bonanzas.

All my loyalty cards are now digital and on my phone too, and I realised that I was already transacting a fair bit using branded ‘currency’. I use both Starbucks’ payment system to load up and buy a coffee, or Caffe Nero’s coffee app, which rewards good deeds (like using a re-useable cup), to generate extra spending power in the form of free coffees. It made me wonder: will we will see a future where we don’t invest our hard-earned cash in traditional banks, but instead spread our money around supporting the brands and retailers we love and align with?


Cutting edge

Looking back, I now wonder why I’d been dragging around paper money, pesky heavy coins and countless bank, credit and loyalty cards wherever I went for so long. Who needs a clunky purse weighing their bag down? Not me! It was clear within a mere day that this cashless lifestyle was the way forward. In fact, I’m such a convert to a cashless life that if I could, I’d take frictionless payment to a new level and get a microchip implanted into my finger, so I could just breezily wave a hand or tap to pay. A couple of years ago Swedish Train company SJ Rail did just this, allowing customers to replace their paper season tickets with microchip implants in their hands. The initiative was requested by employees of Swedish innovation specialists Epicentre, who already use biometric implants to gain access to its offices. It seems only a matter of time before this type of tech will be adopted by brands and retailers and just imagine the data (and potentially dodgy ethics!).

While I can see why extreme applications like these are few and far between, there’s a proliferation of more subtle, less intrusive cashless initiatives around the world that don’t require consumers to have surgery!

In probably the most famous of these, Amazon Go, customers can tap their phones at the entrance, pick up what they want and, famously, “Just Walk Out” with their groceries (no checkouts or annoying lines!).

At KFC’s KPRO restaurant in Hangzhou, China and US fast food chain Cali Burger, digital kiosks use facial recognition to recognise customers, suggest their favourite meals and allow them to pay with a smile. They are effectively turning their customers’ face into their loyalty cards. At Alibaba’s cashierless Futuremart store the so-called “Happy Go Metre” even offers customers discounts if they look happy while paying with facial recognition.

Moving beyond the face, 7-Eleven in South Korea has been trialling a system that allows customers to pay using the palm of their hand, whilst Klarna allows digital payment of goods to not only be delayed, but also split into instalments. Uber have recognised the need to split the cost of rides between multiple payees and you have to question why isn’t this a standard banking and financing option for goods and utilities?


Teething problems

Despite my adoption of a cashless life, it’s clear that this is still a step too far for many people who are not ready for, or don’t have access to, a more efficient, convenient, seamless and simple life. Amazon is now actually adding cash desks to its Go stores and Sainsbury’s cashless Holborn trial failed, forcing the retailer to re-install cash desks again. But is this a symptom of shoppers who are not ready for the future, or retailers, banks and payment providers who are not doing enough to educate, communicate and embed new user experiences and behaviours with their customers?

I recently came a cropper with Apple Pay. When it works, it’s superb. And with their movements into Apple Cash (money transfers) and their shiny new titanium Apple Card (currently only available in the US), it seems banking is an ever growing piece of the pie. But when you have a query or an issue, trying to speak to someone to resolve it, is like finding Nemo! I had noticed some mysterious ‘automatic payments for digital games’ and as a non-gamer, immediately suspected I’d been hacked. I assumed my bank would deal with this as fraud – but they told me to get onto Apple Pay. Ha! Easier said than done. I challenge you to speak to someone at Apple Pay! It’s impossible. After weeks of trying to locate anyone to speak to, I finally contacted Apple people in the US via Apple Support, who knew nothing and just referred me back to my bank who can tell me nothing about Apple Pay, so I gave up. I’m still paying for some 15yr old hacker’s gaming habit! I just hope he’s gaming responsibly.

It’s clear that cashless payment and banking tech still needs to integrate the human needs of slick and responsive user experience and customer service; because whilst AI and a bot can be an efficient solution, sometimes you just need to speak to an actual breathing person. There will also be moments when digital payment will just not cut it – such as when the window cleaner (who had over-confidently already cleaned my windows) knocked on my door, demanding £15 in bank notes at the weekend. Listening to myself explaining my new financial nirvana to him, I realised I sounded decidedly pompous and  it did not go down well (despite offers to do a digital payment transfer). I can imagine much the same with most traders, or old school cabbies.

And, of course, there’s the disgruntled woman in the tres hip nail bar. Despite all her effusive protests that I absolutely had to pay in cash, she did finally magic a card machine from behind the desk and payment was completed within seconds.

And I left, not only with shiny nails, but with the joy of knowing that I had helped her take one step into the future of digital consumer payment solutions.


You can read more about this fascinating subject from SVP Global Innovation Alex Sbardella’s article: Are we heading towards a cashless future? Click here to read it.  

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