Money walks: Ireland readies to go cashless, eventually

Other countries are much further down the road to a hard cash-free existence

Contactless cards are growing in popularity, but they have a way to go before Irish consumers fully embrace them. Photograph: iStock

Contactless cards are growing in popularity, but they have a way to go before Irish consumers fully embrace them. Photograph: iStock

 

Earlier this month the Pricewatch desk decided to live without cash for a week. That is not to say we didn’t spend money (sadly, we did), but the plan was to see if we could get through seven days without having to spend any physical money. And we almost made it.

A Leap card allowed us to use public transport, and Hailo meant it was possible to book a taxi when public transport let us down. And if it wasn’t lashing rain and we needed to get from A to B quickly, our Dublin City Bikes account came through with no cash having to change hands.

The big weekend shop was done with a debit card, and we were able to transfer a few bob to another person using a banking app on our smartphone, although we did need to get their Bic and Iban details, and the transfer wasn’t immediate.

Our cashless existence was made easier by contactless transactions, which are now commonplace. Because of contactless payment, we could use a Visa debit card in most shops and for most purchases. A weekend at the Metropolis music festival at the RDS was doable without cash because, for the first time, such an event had contactless points at every till.

We would have made it through the week had we not needed to buy a couple of bin tags in our corner shop on the last day of the experiment. We came undone when we asked our local – and always grumpy – shopkeeper if he accepted contactless. He practically punched us in the face for our cheek. (It’s that kind of neighbourhood.)

Contactless cards are growing in popularity, but they have a way to go before Irish consumers (and grumpy shopkeepers) fully embrace them. About half of us use contactless payments, according to a survey published by Bank of Ireland this summer. The average contactless payment is €11.33.

Card payments have grown 24 per cent over the past five years, with debit transactions doubling in the same period. This year alone, debit card transactions have grown by 22 per cent, with contactless payments rising 500 per cent year on year: 1.9 million transactions a week.

But if half of us are using contactless, half are not. The survey by Amarach Research recorded a lack of knowledge about contactless: 45 per cent of those surveyed were unable to correctly identify the current limit (€30) and a third were did not know the contactless symbol. A further 28 per cent of consumers never thought to use it.

Currency accounts

Any Swedes reading this will no doubt laugh at us and our Luddite ways, although they have always been frontrunners when it comes to cash advances: The bank note as we know it was born in Stockholm in 1661, when a merchant banker printed Europe’s first paper currency.

It is in the Swedish capital where the curtain looks set to come down on cash. Stockholm is leading the charge towards a cashless society: last year cash transactions made up no more than 2 per cent of all payments there, while actual cash was only used in one in five shop transactions.

Swedish shopkeepers are legally allowed to refuse coins and notes, and street vendors prefer to be paid with cards or phones. And you will be rebuffed if you try to uses actual money on Swedish public transport. Even banks don’t really rate money; about two-thirds of branches don’t keep cash, and ATMs are becoming a thing of the past.

Sweden is set to become the world’s first cashless society because of its embrace of technology, according to a study published by Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Study author Niklas Arvidsson said at the time of its publication last winter that there was less than 80 billion (€8 billion) Swedish crowns in circulation, compared with 106 billion six years ago.

“And out of that amount, only somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent is actually in regular circulation,” he said. “The rest is socked away in people’s homes and bank deposit boxes, or can be found circulating in the underground economy.”

One of the reasons Swedes have moved so fast to scrap cash is because of a collaboration between major Swedish and Danish banks. Swish is a direct-payment app used for transactions between individuals.

“Swish is a brilliant idea,” Arvidsson said. “But to introduce it internationally is a challenge, not least because it takes a long time to change other countries’ banking systems from scratch. But it is not impossible that a Swish-based banking revolution can also occur abroad.”

We don’t have Swish here and we won’t have anything like it any time soon. Even so, Ireland is also moving towards a cashless society.

“We are probably not as far away as you think,” says Philip Konopik, the Ireland country manager for Visa. “Last year €1 in every €3 spent in Ireland was with a Visa card, and the pace is accelerating all the time.”

Konopik says the Nordic countries are so far ahead of us because, culturally, they are more disposed to dispense with cash and because the infrastructure there is better. A multifaceted approach is required for people to move away from physical money, he added. According to the Central Bank, a move away from cash could collectively save us€1 billion.

A positive message needs to come from banks and retailers, he says. “People have to be prompted to use their cards, and if they feel that they are in some way delaying the process or creating some kind of hassle for the retailer by using contactless, then they will be reluctant to do so.”

A Token service

Of course, the card’s days are numbered and even Konopik says it is already “redundant”. He describes it merely as a physical storage space to hold a card number and the name of the card holder.

Visa already has the future payment technology in place. The Visa Token Service is a new security technology that replaces sensitive account information, such as the 16-digit primary account number, with a unique digital identifier called a token. The token allows payments to be processed without exposing actual account details that could potentially be compromised. Banks, retailers and the likes of Apple Pay use it to offer secure mobile payment applications.

Token will see you putting your card details – in a secure form – on your phone, computer, internet-connected fridge and any other device you have that can talk to other devices and make payments. You will be able to set the limits of the transactions on an individual device and even the kind of products it can buy. So, for example, your fridge will be able to buy milk but not books. If you lose a device you, will can cancel it and shut down its spending privileges without having to cancel your card.

If that all sounds farfetched, it isn’t. According to Konopik, it will go mainstream in some countries next year and in Ireland within two years.

In the meantime, smaller steps are being taken closer to home. Alone , the charity that supports older people to age at home, has launched Ireland’s first contactless collection boxes. The boxes will be in the 10 Butler’s Pantry shops from the end of November until early in the new year.

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