Retailer Woolworths is steadily reducing the number of registers accepting coins and notes in its smaller format Metro stores. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
Retailer Woolworths is steadily reducing the number of registers accepting coins and notes in its smaller format Metro stores. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Woolies mulls bold checkout plan

IF YOU thought the mass rollout of self-serve check-outs was all getting a bit too much, retailer Woolworths has hinted at a change that could go a whole lot further.

Woolworths said there were no plans to remove every register that accepted cash. But, particularly in inner city stores, customers were increasingly choosing to not pay with coins and notes and so the number of cash accepting checkouts was reducing dramtically.

A senior Woolies executive has said the supermarket's customers are increasingly "ambivalent to cash" and the day won't be "far off" when Woolies opens a virtually cash-free supermarket where you can only pay by card or through your phone.

By getting rid of cash, stores can squeeze in more registers, meaning people get in and out of the store faster.

Woolworths' Metro division managing director Steve Greentree made the comments to news.com.au at the supermarket's new Pitt St store in the heart of Sydney's CBD.

Of almost 30 check-outs at the store, only three self-serve tills and a manned register accept cash, far fewer than at the rest of the firm's branches.

Retailer Woolworths is steadily reducing the number of registers accepting coins and notes in its smaller format Metro stores. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
Retailer Woolworths is steadily reducing the number of registers accepting coins and notes in its smaller format Metro stores. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

The mini Woolies has showcased a number of new initiatives including a food court of hot and cold meal options to eat immediately, and in-store microwaves and sandwich presses so customers can cook their own lunches.

Increasing numbers of Australians are rejecting coins and notes in favour of "tap and go".

Data released by the Reserve Bank of Australia revealed the percentage of cash payments has plummeted from 69 per cent in 2007 to 37 per cent in 2016.

Another study has suggested physical cash could vanish in Australia as soon as 2026.

Mr Greentree heads up Woolworths' stable of small-format stores, of which there are now 50 in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, where customers often nip in for just a few items for lunch or dinner instead of a big shop.

Woolworths’ new Pitt St store in Sydney’s CBD has just three self-serve check-outs that accept cash out of almost 30.
Woolworths’ new Pitt St store in Sydney’s CBD has just three self-serve check-outs that accept cash out of almost 30.

"In all of our city locations, people are just ambivalent to cash now. They just don't use it so here (at Metro Pitt St) we have three registers that take cash and that's it; every other self-service is card only, so it's tap and go or Apple pay," he told news.com.au.

Cashless tills were safer, he said, because they weren't targeted by thieves. With fewer moving parts they were also less prone to breaking down and without having to store cash and coins they took up less room. That meant more check-outs per store.

"They're just much more efficient," Mr Greentree said.

A Woolworths spokeswoman said there were no plans to axe cash in stores and the comments referred specifically to smaller stores, which have far more self-serve check-outs, and not the traditional larger supermarkets where manned registers are still in abundance.

But asked if he could see a day when Woolies would have a fully cashless store, Mr Greentree said: "I don't think it's too far off. We'll probably always have one or two (manned check-outs) but with each store we're taking another (cash) machine out."

Mr Greentree added it was requirement that tobacco was sold by a staff member, so that register would likely be the last cash till standing and would be available to all.

Steve Greentree, the managing director of Woolworths Metro, said customers were increasingly ‘ambivalent to cash’.
Steve Greentree, the managing director of Woolworths Metro, said customers were increasingly ‘ambivalent to cash’.

If Woolworths does take a punt and almost completely removes the option of paying with physical cash, it certainly won't be the first food retailer to do so.

Amazon has opened a number of supermarkets in the US under the Amazon Go brand that not only don't accept cash, they don't have check-outs at all.

Rather, customers scan their smartphone at the entrance gate, shop for whatever they like and walk out the door with the amount automatically deducted from their bank accounts.

Closer to home, Sydney now has a cashless street - of sorts. Spice Alley, in the CBD fringe suburb of Chippendale, is an Asian style hawker food market stretching along a stretch of former back gardens where none of the eateries accepts cash.

One small booth is available for customers who insist on using cash where they can swap notes for gift cards to buy food.

According to comparison site finder.com.au, if the RBA's data on the take-up of cash-free payments maintains its course, coins and notes could effectively become redundant in Australia as soon as 2026.

Finder's money expert Bessie Hassan said new technology was behind the death of cash.

"Many people simply tap and go with their debit or credit card nowadays. With the introduction of Apple Pay and Google Pay, even that's a bit old-school for some," Ms Hassan said.

"These new payment methods have led to less people carrying cash with them.

"In the past, Aussies would come armed to group dinners with a wad of cash so they could pay for their portion of the bill. Nowadays it can all be done electronically thanks to mobile and online banking."

A turning point to cashless payments has been the increasing acceptance by retailers of card payments for small amounts that might, in the past, have attracted a surcharge.

An analysis in 2017 found Australia was the seventh most cashless country in the world. Consumers in Canada, Sweden and the UK were the most enthusiastic to ditch coins and notes.

Spice Alley, close to Sydney’s CBD, no longer accepts physical cash.
Spice Alley, close to Sydney’s CBD, no longer accepts physical cash.

The Swedish reserve bank, known as the Riksbank, has said that less than 20 per cent of transactions in the country now involve cash. In terms of the value of total transactions, less than one per cent takes place with physical money.

The axing of cash on public transport in favour of stored value smartcards, similar to what is occurring in Australia, has turbocharged the demise of coins and notes in the Scandinavian nation.

Swedish banks have also made it easier to survive without cash by creating an app that allows people to send money to one another just by knowing the other person's mobile phone number rather than account number and BSB.

But financial boffins have said its unlikely cash could ever be fully done away with. Its sheer simplicity and egalitarian nature means it is available to all.

"Not everyone has (or can have) a bank account, a credit/debit card, or access to electronic payment systems via a smartphone or computers," Sergio Focardi, a research professor in quantitative finance at Paris' De Vinci Research Centre, wrote on The Conversation.

"People cannot be forced to have or use these tools. Access to a debit/credit card might be denied to persons not deemed creditworthy. In addition, an economy entirely based on electronic payments is subject to disruption, including cyber attacks."

But that money may be accepted in fewer and fewer places as more and more people forgo cash for cards and other digital payment methods.

benedict.brook@news.com.au

In the future, if this shopper wants to pay by cash, she may have just one checkout to choose from.
In the future, if this shopper wants to pay by cash, she may have just one checkout to choose from.


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