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Coles shoppers walk out over 'cash only' checkout fail

Coles customers decided to go cashless when given the option of going to an ATM or being able to pay with card.

Coles customers chose to walk out of the supermarket and instead opt for a cashless alternative instead of withdrawing money when there was an outage that made card transactions impossible.

Shoppers at Coles' Westfield Bondi Junction supermarket, in Sydney's eastern suburbs, were met with a hand-scrawled sign on Thursday that read: “Cash only, sorry for any inconvenience.”

Composite image of a coles customer at the store entrance and a Coles worker holding a sign saying 'cash only'
Coles' Westfield Bondi Junction store could only take cash payments after an outage on Thursday night. (Source: Yahoo Finance)

With self-service checkouts dominating most of the supermarket giant's stores, many shoppers - who were on their phones or listening to music - were surprised by the forced human interaction. On top of that, the idea that credit cards weren’t being accepted due to an outage was too much for most, who just walked away despite there being an ATM just metres away.

Just around the corner at the Harris Farm grocery store, the queue stretched to the back of the store. Its card facilities were working, and staff behind the registers were processing customers quickly.

Composite image showing a nearly-empty Coles supermarket, and queues of shoppers in a nearby Harris Farm store.
The Coles supermarket was nearly empty, while queues of shoppers could be seen in a nearby Harris Farm store. (Source: Yahoo Finance)

University of NSW economics professor Richard Holden told Yahoo Finance the situation reaffirmed that Aussie consumers were moving away from cash.

“Cashless payments are just much more convenient for most people unless you’re very old,” he said.

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Holden wasn't surprised shoppers weren't keen on using the ATM, since doing so could attract fees. He recalled the frustration of having to withdraw hundreds of dollars from a bank and carrying it around for the week. Each subsequent purchase would create smaller denominations of notes as well as heavy loose change.

The tap-and-go card network has added to the convenience of using credit and debit cards and EFTPOS. Also, with many consumers using their phones or watches to tap and go, cash can be hard to source since a physical card is often required to use an ATM.

Holden believes the Aussie system is “way better” than most facilities currently used in the United States.

“Cards are also better for stores because they don’t have to deal with the cash-handling nonsense, and it’s obviously faster - people can just tap rather than spend time counting out money,” he said.

Exterior of a Coles supermarket with an ATM in the foreground.
Dozens of shoppers simply chose to shop elsewhere, despite there being an ATM just metres away. (Source: Yahoo Finance)

There's been significant debate in Australia about whether we are heading toward a cashless society, with some backlash when fast food places like McDonalds and KFC started refusing to accept cash, and even an Aussie bank dropping physical currency transactions.

There are groups arguing cash should never be phased out and a recent poll of Yahoo Finance readers found 92 per cent did not support Australia going cashless.

The cost of using cash has been a motivator for some businesses, while others have said they are trying to protect staff who have been at risk of robberies.

Human interaction during shopping set to disappear

While Coles' problems yesterday were localised, the Australia-wide outage experienced by Optus in November meant large numbers of businesses relying on its network couldn’t process EFTPOS payments. The situation led to warnings that the country would be “doomed” if it became cashless.

But Holden believes that, while going cashless creates some vulnerability, Australian society will continue to embrace cards.

“There will be an additional force disciplining firms to get their act together … because outages will be bad for them,” he said.

He also expects retailers to increasingly move away from staffing their registers with humans.

“I think it’s pretty clear the future will end up looking like Seattle’s Amazon Go flagship store," he said. "It’s completely extraordinary. You walk in with your phone, pick up whatever you want and then walk out, and that’s it.

“That’s where we’re headed. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen, but I think the future [of shopping] won’t really involve much human interaction.”

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