Securing our Freedom to Pay

  • 12 May 2021

Thousands of supermarkets and shops around the country have committed to continue to accept cash after businesses - including some of the biggest names in retail - signed up to Which?’s cash-friendly pledge, an initiative designed to ensure that millions of consumers who rely on cash are not excluded by the transition to digital payments.

Aldi, Asda, Co-op, John Lewis, LloydsPharmacy and Waitrose have all made the public commitment to keep accepting cash in their stores, recognising that not all customers are yet ready or able to pay digitally. 

Together, the supermarkets are responsible for almost 4,500 stores in the UK, and have a combined grocery market share of more than 30 per cent. 

 

Lloyds Pharmacy has committed to continue to accept cash across its 1,400 UK branches, and John Lewis has agreed to do the same across its stores nationwide.  

The Which? scheme has also been backed by leading retail associations that represent tens of thousands of shops across the country. The British Retail Consortium, Association of Convenience Stores and the British Independent Retailers Association are all encouraging their members to sign up. The Federation of Small Businesses is also promoting the scheme to members that want to maintain access to cash for their customers.

The Bank of England also supports the introduction of the pledge. Its Chief Cashier Sarah John said the ability to use cash remains vitally important for many people, and by signing up “businesses are helping to ensure that everyone in the UK is able to use the form of payment that best meets their needs”.

One of the small retailers already signed up to the pledge is the Lodge Cottage Farm Shop in Crockey Hill, York. Alison Owens, who owns the store, said: “As a small local business we think it's important not to exclude anyone, and we would never refuse anyone trying to pay with cash. 

 

“A lot of our elderly customers rely on cash and people are often telling me that other stores will now only take card payments. We are a small farm shop that has served the local community for 10 years and will continue to accept cash for people buying our goods.”

The consumer champion is inviting all retailers, large and small, to sign the pledge, which has been launched in response to concerns that cash is becoming increasingly difficult to spend as businesses turn to digital payments, a problem that has intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A massive shift towards online shopping over the last year and scare stories about the safety of cash handling prompting some businesses to go completely cashless have led to a huge drop in cash usage. Which? research found that 34 per cent of consumers reported being unable to pay with cash at least once when trying to buy something since coronavirus restrictions were first introduced.

Now that restrictions are gradually lifting, Which? wants to ensure that the 10 million consumers who are not ready or able to give up cash are not left in a position where they can’t pay with notes and coins as a result of businesses permanently refusing cash. 

 

The launch of the pledge coincides with Which? today hosting a summit on the future of cash that will bring together representatives from HM Treasury, banking and payments giants and leading industry experts. 

The summit will cover the challenges as well as the potential solutions to ensuring that cash can remain a viable method of payment for those who have no other option. This will include issues such as how cash dependent consumers can access cash locally and for free in the face of sharp cuts to the UK’s ATM and bank branch network, as well as how levels of cash refusal should be monitored.  

The event takes place more than a year on from the government’s announcement that it will legislate to protect cash in last year’s Budget. However, there has still been no indication of when this will be introduced. 

At today’s event the consumer champion will call on the government to set out when legislation to protect access to cash will be introduced and provide greater clarity about its long term plan to ensure that the millions still reliant on cash will continue to be able to pay with cash as digital payments become increasingly dominant. 

This should include putting the Financial Conduct Authority in charge of the cash system, and prompt it to investigate how widespread the issue of cash refusal is, as plans to protect access to cash will be undermined if there is nowhere left to spend it. 

Anabel Hoult, CEO of Which? said: “Our cash-friendly pledge will reassure consumers who rely on cash that they won’t be left behind as we make the transition to digital payments.

 

“We’re asking retailers to sign up to the pledge because the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the decline of cash usage - threatening the whole infrastructure that ensures millions of people who aren’t yet ready to make the switch to digital payments can access and spend their own money.

“The government announced it would legislate to protect access to cash more than a year ago. Now it must set out when this will be introduced and explain its long-term plan to protect cash for as long as people need it.” 

Case study: Steve Pointer 

Steve has a severe visual impairment that means he finds it almost impossible to pay by card when shopping, and described the process of inserting a card and typing in a pin as “very difficult”.

He has been refused service when trying to pay with cash several times in the last year. Steve said: “Having to leave a shop because I can’t pay with cash can be quite distressing, because I’ve got a legitimate form of payment but it’s just not accepted, and I have to leave the shop empty-handed.”

 

  

He added: “A shop displaying a sign saying that it is cash friendly would give me confidence that I could go in and buy what I needed without any hassle.”

Case study: Brenda Skan

Brenda, who lives in the West Midlands, uses cash to budget as it helps her keep track of how much is needed for bills and to pay off debts each month. She withdraws cash each week to pay for necessities.

Brenda said: "During the pandemic a lot of shops have wanted payment by card. I am on a fixed income and I have found it almost impossible to keep within my budget. I’m pleased that there is now something in place that tells me which shops will make it easy to pay with cash.” 

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