Back in 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning nearly all “cashless” stores, or those that only accept credit cards, debit cards, and other virtual payments while not accepting cash. The Board said that such brick and mortar stores tended to disclude lower income people who often don’t have card or digital means to pay for things and only have cash on them. While many thought that their hearts were in the right place, many businesses have been horrified at the consequences.
“When we went cashless, crime dropped overnight,” said restaurant owner Lawrence Lee, whose restaurant went cashless in 2017 before being forced to revert back in 2019. “Even then the area was pretty high in crime, and we were robbed before. Having a register out front will do that. When we went cashless, you know, that ended. There was one night when two people, who were later arrested for robbery, came in and looked around strangely at the places we used to have registers. When they sat down, they asked what happened, and our server explained the switchover. They abruptly got up and left. So it saved us from at least one.”
However, when it was reverted back in 2019, crime not only went up again, but a new problem popped up as well.
“COVID,” continued Lee. “Everyone was worried about money carrying COVID, and here we all were, having to still accept cash even though it was a health risk. I mean, other stores nearby that went cashless began getting robbed again too, but COVID was a scare with that. And, there’s a lot of reasons why San Francisco became beleaguered with crime, but forcing business to accept cash definitely opened up more for robberies. I get that there are some people who prefer cash, but most people nowadays use a card or something like Venmo to pay. On two levels this was a safety issue, yet the Supervisors thought this was smart. Well, they have COVID victims and allowing multiple robberies to happen now because of their callousness.”
Throughout the 2020’s, in addition to COVID and the rise of crime, the cashless ban soon affected the resulting business exodus as well. Many stores, including all Amazon Go locations, left the city in the last few years in part due to the rise in crime and added costs for stores designed around being cashless.
And across the Bay in Oakland, restaurants and other businesses facing a rise in crime recently employed electric-only payments through cards and smartphone apps, stunting crime at those locations – just as businesses in San Francisco discovered last decade. In other cities, like Los Angeles, cashless is growing as well. Many had switched over during the pandemic and never went back, helping reduce crime and increase sales, although some have continued to say that such policies are racist due to some people not having electronic forms of payment or not even banking at all.
“There have been a few people who are mad about it, but generally most people are cool with it,” said Burbank barista trainer and coffee shop assistant manager Elsie Higgins to the Globe on Friday. “Teenagers to people in their 90s who come for coffee all get that this is the norm now. It’s only a very small segment who seem to not like it.”
Another, LA restaurant Co-Manager Peter Robb, added that “Crime goes down with cashless of course, but it also helps servers. We bring out the tablet, and they have to physically pick a tip amount. It’s a lot harder to pick zero, and we’ve seen a rise in tipping as a result. If we had to go back to cash, that would drop. Some business still like cash-only because the credit-card companies take a cut so they get more money, but we’re starting to see a more evening out with cashless now. There will always be a place for cash, but in our businesses, that’s becoming less and less of a thing.”
Back in San Francisco, even while neighbors embrace cashless stores, San Francisco has stood firm, to their growing detriment.
“I’m looking at locations outside the city now,” explained Lee. “I love the are and love California, so I’m staying. But I just cannot operate in San Francisco if I have to keep taking in cash and having it sit in a register waiting for thieves to come. I get that some people like paying with cash, but it’s also killing us.”
As of Friday, there is currently no plans to revisit the cashless ordinance in San Francisco.
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