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Rochester businesses accepting cash again and say high street would be 'devastated' if society went contactless


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The jangle of loose change in pockets seems like a distant memory, with a contactless tap of a card, phone or even a watch becoming the new normal.

So what would happen if we did away with 'real' money for good? Reporter Laoise Gallagher took a walk down Rochester high street to find out if businesses really do have a preference and how close Kent is to becoming completely cashless.

Rochester is lined with independent shops and restaurants
Rochester is lined with independent shops and restaurants

The quaint, historical high street seemed the perfect place to explore. It has plenty of independent retail shops, restaurants and tourist locations which make the town centre a popular spot for shoppers from across the county.

I arrived at noon and struggled to find a parking space in Blue Boar Lane - it seemed many people had ventured out to enjoy the September sun.

My first moment of choice was when I had to decided how to pay for the car park. There was a pay and display machine right next to the car with an option to pay with coins or card.

However, with a queue four people deep I decided to opt for the easier option on the mobile phone app 'RingGo' - a cashless parking solution that allowed me to skip the slow moving line.

The app has been installed on my phone for quite a while and I simply entered the numerical code on the side of the pay and display. With a double click of the side button on my iPhone I was ready to head off to the high street.

I paid an extra 9p to park using RingGo
I paid an extra 9p to park using RingGo

Although, I did pay 9p extra for the privilege, paying £1.79 for two hours compared to the standard cost of £1.70.

Walking straight past the line and feeling rather smug, it appeared that technology was already becoming a barrier to some of the elderly generation and an older couple were struggling to operate the machine and enter their number plate.

A young man had stepped in to help, but this immediately got me thinking - as everything becomes more advanced, would a cashless society begin to leave the older generations behind?

My first encounter on the high street was with a busker, Daren Francis.

Throughout the pandemic buskers have often struggled to collect a substantial income, with many shops starting to discourage cash transactions in the early stages of reopening.

Busker Daren Francis still relies on cash donations
Busker Daren Francis still relies on cash donations

Mr Francis said: "I think I still do quite well, more people still carry cash than you would expect actually. You would be surprised.

"I do own a contactless donation machine but I didn’t bring it with me today - all of the London buskers in South Bank and places like that own them though and do really well. When I bring mine out I find not many people use it or only start to make an effort when they see other people coming forward to tap their cards.

"Generally I will only make like £15 or so on there, which is obviously still good but I don’t do amazingly simply for having the machine on me. I think it’s more of a generational thing."

So for Mr Francis it seemed he still relied heavily on cash, with a guitar case placed in front of him welcoming a healthy collection of spare silver.

However, for someone like myself who generally only carries notes or will pay with card, it made me very self-aware that many may not have the option to donate a small amount to a street performer.

The Holland and Barrett store prefer card as it reduces admin
The Holland and Barrett store prefer card as it reduces admin

The first store I entered was Holland and Barrett, a health and wellbeing chain.

I picked up a few items I needed to replenish - a pre-workout mix, rescue remedy and echinacea. Coming to a total of £36 I could pay for this with my contactless card without the need to enter my pin number.

At the beginning of 2020 the limit stood at £30, and then increased to £45 in April. However, on October 15 this is set to increase dramatically to £100 - a figure that would make shopping a lot easier for the younger generation at least, but comes with fears it could leave doors wide open for theft and fraud.

The supervisor in the Holland and Barrett store said: "We do prefer card over cash definitely. It just means we don’t have to count it all up so it’s easier for us.

"That’s just our personal preference as an individual store though, it’s not the wider chain holding that view."

I was able to buy my 60p chewing gum on card despite the £3 minimum limit
I was able to buy my 60p chewing gum on card despite the £3 minimum limit

Continuing on my trip I stopped into Newlands convenience store. As soon as you walked in the door, a big handwritten sign was immediately visible on the perspex in front of the till: "Minimum card payment £3.00".

I had only entered the shop to buy an individual packet of Extra Ice chewing gum, so realised I would either have to pay in cash or select a few more items in a haste to reach the minimum limit.

However, in my mission to test just how close Kent is to becoming cashless, I placed the single pack of gum on the counter and presented my card, as well as a £10 note.

The shop owner looked at me, then slowly slid the £10 note back and said "It's only 60p but card is fine" - turns out the £3 limit wasn't quite as strict as the sign implied...

The assistant told me that the limit has just been reduced from £5, but couldn't explain to me why I was able to bypass the rules to purchase my minty treat.

Patrick Fysh at Store 104 thinks society would be devastated by a move away from cash
Patrick Fysh at Store 104 thinks society would be devastated by a move away from cash

Next up was Store 104, an independent book and yarn shop - co-owner Patrick Fysh explained how he believes a cashless society would devastate society.

He said: "We never turn a customer away, whether they want to pay cash or card that is fine.

"Yes, card can be easier but we definitely cannot go to a cashless society. It would devastate too many groups like the vulnerable and the elderly, they rely on cash."

His assistant Lib Horner added: "We absolutely would not support a move towards being cashless.

"It's not the way forward - think of the homeless even, they may not have access to a bank or card and would need cash. It's just fairer if everywhere accepts both."

Jason Hunt accepts card and cash at his antique store
Jason Hunt accepts card and cash at his antique store

Jason Hunt at Kaizen Antiques and Jewellery echoed this opinion. Although, many of his pricier goods on offer would require a pin number on contactless cards.

He said: "We get a lot of the older generation come in here and many of them prefer cash, they find the whole idea of contactless a bit bizarre.

"If you think how many elderly people will go to the cash point every week and withdraw their pension, that's how they know how much money they have and how to budget for the week ahead. They will count out their coins to pay for a nice meal out and keep it all safe.

"Meanwhile in front of them you've got a teenager tapping their card away for a £2 bus fare with no idea how much is in their account - there is a big divide between the two generations that would need to be considered if we moved to a contactless world."

Almost opposite Mr Hunt's antique haven is The Gordon Chippy - the first store I came across that admitted to preferring cash.

The Gordon Chippy has a stricter card limit
The Gordon Chippy has a stricter card limit

The traditional fish and chip shop had a sign on the counter reading "Card payments welcome! On orders £5.00 and over!"

I tried my luck once again, but to my disappointment I wasn't allowed to buy a £2 portion of chips on my card.

The manager then explained how the limit in her shop is in place to protect profits - with card providers charging a blanket 35p charge on all card transactions.

She said: "If you were buying a £2,000 sofa the company will be charged 35p, same here on a little portion of chips.

"If every customer used their card we wouldn't be making money! It's just to protect ourselves."

The manager believes a move to a cashless society would leave businesses out of pocket
The manager believes a move to a cashless society would leave businesses out of pocket

She continued: "For the world to go on without cash we need a better system for paying by card to be honest.

"How will businesses continue if there is no cash and card providers don't all move over to a more fair system? We can't."

Not letting the lack of a fresh portion of chunky chips dampen my spirits, I continued on my trip and visited one of the many charity shops in Rochester.

Wisdom Hospice had a sign expressing their preference for contactless payments.

However, manager Alex Williams revealed that this was an old sign from their initial reopening months ago, and they have no real preference now.

Widsom Hospice used to prefer contactless to avoid queues at the Post Office
Widsom Hospice used to prefer contactless to avoid queues at the Post Office

She said: "When we first reopened there were staff shortages everywhere because of social distancing, so the queue for the Post Office at the end of the day was chaos.

"That's when we put the preference in place because it cut down on that admin work and saved me waiting in line for ages - it took pressure off the Post Office staff too.

"I think money is fine to be handled, it has always been dirty, I don't think it's necessarily any more grimy now with the pandemic to be honest."

The focal point of the high street is without a doubt, Rochester Cathedral - with 283,000 people visiting the Cathedral in 2019.

So how would it fair if society became cashless?

The till at Rochester Cathedral has a temperamental card machine
The till at Rochester Cathedral has a temperamental card machine

On entering the grand Choir with high ceilings and archways, a humble till sat on a table with one attendant.

In front of the till was a sign "Cash Only" - this was the first of its kind I had seen all afternoon.

When speaking to the attendant she told me that it wasn't a permanent fixture, but their card machine is temperamental and often crashes. In this case, if society were to become cashless, the cathedral could lose a lot of business and revenue.

A spokesman for Rochester Cathedral said: "We do usually accept both card and cash and we try to be as accommodating to both as possible.

"We have coin drops for donations within the cathedral, but we have also introduced contactless donation machines. These allow visitors to donate anywhere from £3 to £10."

I could pay for my lunch in cash, although a card machine was offered first
I could pay for my lunch in cash, although a card machine was offered first

After exploring the cathedral, I had worked up quite an appetite and made my way to Chuck and Blade Burgers - a burger joint marketed mainly towards a younger audience with a large Instagram following.

The food was delicious and the loud pop music mid-afternoon was another real indicator that this was a restaurant aimed to please Gen-Z.

When asking for the bill, the waitress automatically came over with the card machine as though there was no other alternative.

After my discussions earlier with local businesses, I imagined how this would feel for someone older than myself and so asked if they accepted cash.

The waitress looked very confused but said that they did in fact take cash - so I purchased my meal in notes. It felt that perhaps this was a bizarre sight in this restaurant.

Shoppers in Medway give their opinion on the possibility of society going completely cashless

From my trip to Rochester it seemed clear that most businesses there were fairly prepared if real hard cash were to disappear from our wallets tomorrow. However, many would definitely not be happy with that prospect - shoppers in Gillingham said they would also be scared of accessibility, theft and vulnerable groups not being able to use contactless.

This was the topic of our daily KentOnline Facebook question recently, with many readers voicing similar concerns but also looking at the improvements it could make to catching people using cash to avoid paying taxes.

However, one major conundrum remains - if we went cashless, what on earth would happen to the Tooth Fairy?

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