Cashless Payments Keep Growing

But don’t bank on COVID-19 to kill off cash.

February 02, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Fears of contracting COVID-19 have caused a boom in the use of contactless payments around the globe, reports the Wall Street Journal, and that trend is expected to grow. But it doesn’t mean that cash is dead yet.

Cash isn’t an option for online shopping, and buying online or using an app like Uber Eats requires an electronic payment, such as a debit card or PayPal account. That’s why digital retail sales rose 37% in the third quarter, seasonally adjusted, from the year-earlier period, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Worldwide, fears of the coronavirus have driven an increase in tap-to-pay and electronic payments. Contactless payments as a share of in-person transactions grew at least 10% in more than 80 markets for Mastercard last year, thanks to consumers’ demands for increased speed and safety, said Michael Miebach, CEO, Mastercard.

COVID-19 has accelerated the move toward e-commerce by about four or five years, said Marion Laboure, a Deutsche Bank economist. Americans’ use of cash had been gradually declining for years before the pandemic as they embraced credit and debit cards, mobile wallets, online transfers and apps. They used cash in 26% of all payments in 2019, down from 40% in 2012, according to the Federal Reserve. A Fed survey, conducted in May 2020, found that 28% of respondents said they were avoiding making payments in cash.

“Consumer payments is a habit, like the way you like to drink your coffee in the morning,” said Claire Greene, a payments expert at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Adopting new habits—like contactless payments—due to the pandemic requires effort and learning by both consumers and retailers, she said.

While shoppers’ adoption of digital commerce is expected to last, economists say it is too soon to know if U.S. consumers’ shift to cashless payments will as well, for several reasons. U.S. household spending overall remains below pre-pandemic levels. As spending rebounds, so might cash payments.

Some consumers are concerned about privacy and remain hesitant to have their purchases tracked. A recent study by Visa found that 24% of U.S. consumers said they would return to their old payment methods after a vaccine is widely available.

The U.S. is unlikely to allow most businesses to abandon cash payments because of concerns about unbanked consumers or those unfamiliar with digital payment methods. New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey and San Francisco have passed legislation requiring most retailers and restaurants to accept cash.

Meanwhile, people still like physical dollars and cents. Although people in the U.S. were using cashless in transactions, they were holding more of it as a store of value, the May Fed survey revealed.