Going cashless: How the pandemic sped up digital dollars

BOSTON — In recent years, paying electronically for just about everything has been taking off and the pandemic has people cashing out at an even faster clip.

When it’s time to pay at the Emery Farm Store in Durham New Hampshire, customers now only have one way to pay to settle up. They must pay with plastic.

Holly Philbrick, the owner of the oldest family farm in the country, made the decision to stop accepting cash as the coronavirus swept through the area.

“Just making things as contactless as possible, limiting any opportunity for exposure,” explained Philbrick. “So handling cash, having to reach the hand of a customer taking cash, as opposed to them just slipping a car into a chip reader is very different.”

Earlier this year the World Health Organization recommended retailers move to electronic payment systems to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Doug Butler, a Senior Vice President and Director of Research at Rockland Trust, said the pandemic just accelerated a trend that was happening anyway.

“I don’t think any babysitter accepts anything other than Venmo anymore,” added Butler.

That type of convenience is a big selling point and these systems can be safer too, said Butler. “There are huge benefits to being cashless. One is...the loss of risk. So, you know, no more armed robberies.”

There are some downsides to saying goodbye to cash. Butler says one of them is privacy.

“Cash provides anonymity and a lot of people don’t want to have either the government or the banks or some other institution knowing exactly who they are and how they’re spending their money,” he said.

Data breaches and equal access to electronic platforms are also concerns.

“It’s a concern about inclusion,” said Butler. “There are far more people out there than one would expect who don’t have access to credit cards or debit cards and they run the risk of getting left behind if we move to purely cashless.”

Research shows shoppers can be more impulsive with plastic than they would be if they’re using cash.

Retailers can also get hit with additional costs.

“These cashless transactions aren’t free,” said Butler. “They’re certainly not free for the merchants and that could lead to increased prices.”

Still, a world without cash seems where we’re headed. The coronavirus just pushed the pedal to the floor. Even a farm store in rural New Hampshire is along for the ride.

“It actually forced us to get a little bit more of a sophisticated chip reader that also takes Apple Pay and Google Pay so it’s just a tap of the card,” said Philbrick. “So we’re moving in that direction. It just nudged us along faster.”

This trend is happening around the world. Sweden could be cashless by 2023 and China is now developing an electronic currency.

Going that far would be a problem in Massachusetts which is the only state that requires retailers to accept cash. In fact, Attorney General Maura Healey recently tweeted out a reminder about the law as more establishments were banning cash.

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