Welcome to the brave new world of cashless shopping – where Big Brother keeps an eye on your supermarket basket and you are served by robots rather than a friendly face.
In the heart of the City of London, where pinstriped fat cats rub shoulders with riff-raff like me, is a Tesco Express store.
Nothing strange about that. But by the entrance is a poster that reads: ‘For a quicker checkout we’re a cashless store.’ This is doublespeak for: ‘No cash allowed here.’
Step inside, and a couple of Tesco staff in white T-shirts jump out eagerly asking if I need help. It is as if they are in fear of losing their jobs, to be replaced by robots.
Toby Walne tried to buy his lunch but found himself in a Tesco which did not accept cash
Sauntering down the aisles, clutching a cheese and onion sandwich and a packet of crisps, I make my way to the checkout.
A stern looking man – who I had mistaken for a customer – points to a bank of a dozen computer screens with scanners underneath.
Each ‘station’ is spied on by its own tablet screen that sits above the automated till.
They have a tiny camera eye inside that looks suspiciously like the Hal 9000 robot from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But this Hal does not talk in soothing tones. Instead, it gives me instructions on the screen to scan my items.
Each automated checkout has a sign explaining ‘card only’. But there is a cigarette kiosk where I spy a human handing out tobacco – a duty that has not yet been trusted to a machine.
But my helpless look in their direction, waving three banknotes in the air, is met with incredulity.
Cash is simply not accepted in this store.
Defeated, I whip out a debit card – but still manage to get things wrong. Having scanned the sandwich twice, I need someone to come over and cancel the erroneous purchase.
The move towards a cashless society has left many customers stumped
It is just a ten-second wait but it feels much longer – a belittling episode that leaves me feeling like a fool.
This cashless shop was a strangely unsettling experiment. There was no rummaging around pockets for change or opening a purse or wallet in search of banknotes. I even missed looking into someone’s face just to say ‘hello’.
Rather than a brave new world, this technology takeover seemed an empty experience.
The only other fully automated supermarket in Britain is another Tesco – in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, at the company’s HQ.
Fortunately, we are still a long way off from this supermarket utopia for retailers – who will be able to save money by not employing so many staff and not having to deal with cash and all its security issues.
And so I eagerly await Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first Budget on Wednesday when he is to announce new laws to stop cash becoming extinct.
He will force banks to ensure we can always have access to banknotes and coins. This move is expected to include getting banks to pay local pubs and shops to offer free ‘cashback’ – as revealed by the Mail on Sunday last week.
Shoppers I spoke to at the automated London Tesco store appreciate the convenience of having a robot to serve them – but they would still prefer the option to use cash.
Account manager Shane Murphy had popped into the store to buy lunch. The 26-year-old says: ‘It is wrong to take away the choice of offering cash.’
The World Health Organisation recently advised people to wash their hands if they have concerns after handling banknotes due to the coronavirus outbreak.
But the Bank of England has pointed out debit and credit cards as well as phones can also carry bacteria and viruses.
Shopper Sara Bond, 38, says: ‘Of course we are all concerned about the spread of the disease – but that is no reason to stop using cash.
It sounds like a cynical ploy by the banking industry to justify going cashless.’
Legal cashiers Kelci Rouse, 19, and Natalia Ulakan, 27, were shopping for biscuits – and were not impressed by Tesco’s lack of manned tills or cash. Natalia says: ‘What happens if you forget your purse when going to work?
‘You borrow cash. If you want to spend money rather than pay by card, you should be allowed to do so as a basic human right.’
Over the past two years, 9,000 cash machines have disappeared from high streets while 6,000 bank branches have closed – reducing the network by a third.
This cost-cutting drive is part of a push towards getting people to pay by card rather than cash.
It is working. Bank industry body UK Finance believes only 9 per cent of all payments will be cash-based by 2028. In 15 years, banknotes and coins could be relics of a bygone age.
Natalie Ceeney, author of the independent Access To Cash Review published last year, says choice is vital – and that eight million people still want cash for day-to-day purchases.
Ceeney, former boss of the Financial Ombudsman Service, says: ‘This move by Tesco is basically telling the most vulnerable in society and those that prefer to use cash they are not welcome in a Tesco store.
They should have a moral responsibility to look after the whole of society and not select who they want as customers.’
Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK and last year posted pre-tax profits of almost £1.7 billion. It has 2,650 stores. The cash-free trial in London started at the end of last month.
A Tesco spokeswoman says: ‘The number of customers paying by cash is declining and so we are trialling the idea of a cash-free store. We look forward to customer feedback.’
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