Sweetgreen, mobile payments and a cashless society

Jan. 24, 2017 | by Will Hernandez

As we begin to get into a flow in the new year, one of the key topics we'll discuss again and again is the supposed march to a cashless society.

And believe it or not, a popular specialty salad quick-service restaurant chain is leading that conversation in the U.S.

Sweetgreen, which has 64 stores scattered across the country, tested a no-cash policy in 2016 and is now fully cashless where such a thing is allowed by law. Massachusetts is the exception.

Since the Sweetgreen's co-founders (Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet) announced the move late last year, some pundits criticized the decision for alienating financially underserved consumers. But Sweetgreen has never really targeted that demographic in the first place.

I figured I'd chine in on the subject because I go to Sweetgreen a fair amount.

At the center of Sweetgreen's move to a cash-free zone (it still accepts traditional payment cards) is a mobile app powered by Boston-based LevelUp.

The chain launched the app in early 2016, but promoted it more as the year progressed. When users reach a certain amount of spend through the app (usually $99), they are rewarded with a credit that goes towards their next salad.

Sweetgreen began to heavily promote the app just as it started to test cashless stores. The chain's cofounders made it clear about why the move was needed. It costs money to handle cash, specifically the transfer of it via armored trucks.

Sweetgreen also argued that its employees could conduct more transactions every hour, some 5-to-15 percent more, if they don't have to handle cash. The company hopes the cashless transition leads to more mobile payments.

Sweetgreen plans to release a revamped mobile app soon. This cashless policy isn't going away.

While I've warned about the perils of a cashless society before and how it's not a possibility any time soon, this argument that Sweetgreen alienates certain consumers with its policy doesn't cut it for me.

Some critics have taken it a step further and think the chain's move is unfair to minorities.

But let's be honest: Most minorities aren't lining up to buy $10 salads. That observation is based on 38 years on this Earth as a Hispanic.

Healthy food isn't cheap, especially when it comes to Sweetgreen. That's not to say minorities, or financially underserved consumers in general, are unconcerned about eating healthy.

But the health conscious among this demographic will probably not turn to Sweetgreen for a salad. There are other, cheaper options available to them. If that is indeed the case, then is Sweetgreen really alienating certain consumers?

Of course, not everything is black and white. These kinds of situations never are when it comes to such topics. But consumers have the power of choice. If Sweetgreen isn't for them, they can go elsewhere.

And you can apply that power of choice to establishments that only accept cash.

I recounted my experiences with such places last year when I poked fun at PayPal's Super Bowl commercial that trumpeted the advent of digital payments or "new money." It was yet another attempt by a payments company to get consumers to think about a cashless society.

But we are far from such a reality.

So, while the Sweetgreens of the world will push forward with their cash-free establishments, consumer can take comfort knowing the majority of businesses will welcome cash and traditional payment cards for the foreseeable future.

Consumers will continue to have options.

Flickr photo. 


Topics: Contactless / NFC, Loyalty Programs, POS, Restaurants, Trends / Statistics


Will Hernandez / Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.
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