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Woolworths scraps controversial cashless trial after public backlash

Woolworths is scrapping a trial of electronic-only payments across some of its stores, after customers criticised it for excluding people who prefer to pay with cash.

The cashless payment trial, which began in July last year, was expanded in October to include a total of 14 stores across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane where the supermarket said most payments were made electronically.

In promoting the trial, Woolworths claimed it made shopping “seamless” for inner-city customers. But some shoppers criticised the move on social media and threatened to boycott Woolworths.

One customer on Twitter said a Woolworths employee in Sydney paid for a man’s groceries after the man became distressed at the checkout because he only had cash.

“The corporate head office needs to act like the staff,” the customer said.

Justin Nolan, Woolworths Metro GM, confirmed the company would resume cash payments in all its Metro stores by March 10.

“Based on feedback from our customers, we can see we’ve moved ahead of current community expectations on cash and will be ending the trial,” Nolan said.

Nolan said despite most Metro customers choosing to pay with cards, cash remains important to others for “a whole range of reasons we didn’t fully appreciate”.

The use of cash has been steadily declining in Australia, with the share of consumer cash payments dropping 42 per cent between 2007 and 2019, according to the RBA’s 2019 Consumer Payments Survey.

Steve Worthington, professor of management and marketing at Swinburne University, says that while the pandemic has accelerated the decline of cash payments, the backlash Woolworths’ trial faced shows there are still many Australians who prefer cash.

“The pandemic and Covid-19 has certainly turbocharged the way we pay by using digital means, because people perceived that cash was a way of transferring the virus,” Worthington tells SmartCompany.

“People most comfortable with cash are the elderly, people in regional communities (where there’s not the same internet connection) and even people who are unable to get a card because they don’t have a bank account,” he says.

Worthington predicts cash will continue to play a role in payments, particularly because electronic systems are not failsafe. However, with the number of ATMs and bank branches decreasing, the future of cash remains somewhat uncertain.

“There’s a danger that the cashless society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where there’s less access to cash and less places you can use cash,” he says.

This story originally appeared on Smart Company, and has been republished with permission.

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