The Unexpected Brilliance of Cash-Only Experiences

For the first time cashless payments have overtaken the use of coins and notes in the UK (with the mighty cheque still hanging on for 1% of people. I blame Children in Need.)

For a whole number of reason, this is a good thing, and as someone who recently spent six months predicting what banking will look like in 2020, I hope it hurries up so I can be proved right. Not that that’s the most important reason, of course:

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 18.43.13

I noticed something weird when I started working in Soho, though. Nearly all of the food and drink places near my office are cash only. No Retina scanning. No Bluetooth beacons. No heartbeat monitoring. Bang in the middle of the best city in the world, you can only use cash.

And not only that, but these places are insanely popular. 

I was mulling this over during some excellent conversations with @DuenaBlomstrom and @ScottCainUK this week. I tried to put my futuristic digital biases to one side, and work out what it was about the experience that meant people didn’t care that they couldn’t use their flexible friends – and more than that, loved not doing so. 

It came down to five things…

  • Certainty – Cash works. I know it works. There’s no pause waiting to see if the card won’t go through due to the chip finally disintegrating, no mild panic that I’ve accidentally typed in an extra ‘0’ to the tip, or put in the wrong PIN number. I hand the cash over, it’s done there and then. There’s also certainty that everyone can access cash – not everyone can access payments on the Apple Watch. It’s the lowest-common-denominator option for the business.
  • Low effort – It’s easy for me, and also easy for the staff. They haven’t got to walk around looking for Wifi, fixing the machines, charging batteries or having wires trailing around behind them. That means their time is focussed on people, knowing where everyone is sitting without the need for table numbers (particularly impressive given that you order at the bar before you then find a seat. So in essence, they’re good spies.)
  • Clear expectations – It’s clear that it’s cash only. It’s always cash only. You’re not going to walk in one day and find that their card machine is broken, so you have to get some cash. And if you stumble in for the first time without realising, you can pop to the ATM nearby whilst they cook your food. They know you’ll come back.
  • Your choice of end to the experience The worst part of any restaurant trip? Asking for the bill. The lull in conversation whilst you try to catch the waiter’s eye, the worry over if they’re going to bring it in time because you’ve got a train to catch, or the organisation of who pays for what and how it’s going to be split. At this place, you pay up front. And then, you relax. You leave when you want, when the conversation has finished, when it’s time to go – without the interruptions of payment and bill-splitting. 


So what if they introduced a new way to pay? For some if might be better than the cash machine, and for others it might save milliseconds at the till. But it would increase cognitive choice, add complexities for staff, and change the feel of the restaurant. It would give the company data on their customers – but do they need more than they have? They know how many people are coming in, what they’re eating, and how much they’re paying. And they reward their loyal customers with a hello, and handshake, and a conversation about their family. 

That’s worth more than a 50p discount voucher in my eyes…


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


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