By Bob Seidenberg
Crime, economics, peace of mind — small business members offered different reasons Feb. 9 at a meeting with city officials on why they went cashless.
Evanston economic development officials held the meeting over Zoom, inviting feedback from businesses owners on an ordinance that would require Evanston businesses to accept cash payments from customers.
About half the group of 17 online participants were owners of small businesses, with a number of them sharing detailed reasons behind their decision to go cashless.
City Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, proposed the ordinance which would amend city code to prohibit cashless establishments.
In proposing the ordinance, he explained he did so to help the “unbanked” in the community — referring to those without bank accounts, debit or credit cards — to have the same access to goods and services at food and retail establishments as others with bank accounts, debit and credit cards, do.
He estimated that based on a National survey that as many 5,000 community members may fall in that category.
“We think about undocumented folks, we think about seniors, folks of color who are disproportionately unbanked in the U.S. and in our community,” he said at the Feb. 9 meeting. “So the inspiration is to ensure that those folks have access to necessary services and beyond.”
Under the proposal, an establishment which refused to accept cash on charges above $20, could face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first violation, and up to $1,500 for each subsequent violation.
The ordinance would also allow consumers to report violations through 311.
Out of concern for staff
Mark Quiamzon, one of the owners of Cinnaholic, located at 1596 Sherman Ave., told officials that crime was a factor in the establishment’s going cashless.
In one instance, he said, “Our cash box [was] stolen right in front us by a group of people that walked into the store and grabbed the cash.”
He said if the city adopted the legislation, officials should also couple their action with increasing police patrols in the area. He said when his business went to the police department “to report to them what happened to us they basically said, ‘No, there’s nothing that can be done.’”
He said the business then decided not to accept cash for the time being, “even if it means less revenue for us,” telling officials “I have to look out for the safety of my staff.
Julie Matthei, co-owner and Director of Business Operations at Hewn Bakery, at 1733 Central St., said that business had been accepting cash until Covid hit. Once the pandemic set in, the business, like others, moved to online orders, she said.
“We kept that cashless policy for several reasons,” she explained. “One, it made our transactions more efficient with less face-to-face interactions for long periods of time with customers. We didn’t have to touch the money. We didn’t have to go to the bank every day. And at that point, the country was experiencing a coin shortage so we could not reliably obtain coins from the bank.”
She told city officials that the issues continue — though to a lesser degree now. As with Cinnaholic, crime is a concern, she said.
Currently, she pointed out, “We do not have any cash nor a safe on site, so we are less likely to be a target for theft. And there’s no tip jar.”
Further, she said, “It also eliminated the problem with counterfeit bills,” which happened three times when the bakery was located on Dempster Street.
A track record of helping the less fortunate
“Our approach to those who are unbanked is exceedingly empathetic,” Matthei stressed. “We are very empathetic with people experiencing financial difficulties, homelessness. We donate our leftover food every day to local food pantries. And we give to many local nonprofits throughout the year, and I really hope that our track record for helping others and understanding that speaks for itself.”
The city might want to consider requiring businesses such as large groceries, pharmacies to use cash, she suggested, “but not small businesses, because it should be the choice of that business as to what method of payments they accept.”
Going Cashless relieved a lot of stress
Gabrielle Walker-Aguilar, owner of 4 Suns Fresh Juice, at 1906 Main St., which sustained major damages in a fire at the store Feb. 3, also spoke about that store’s decision to go cashless.
She said as a woman business owner, the business does not accept cash, unless “we make an exception.”
“I don’t refuse anyone a healthy juice or smoothie,” she said, saying the customer may come back at another time, “or I’ll give it to them.”
“It’s infrequent that it happens,” she said.
“I, personally, would like my small business to make exceptions,” she told officials, “and let this be on me. But my question is, ‘Has there been a voice on that end of unbanked people saying, “Evanston has a problem and I can’t get food?”’ And if this is an issue, then, yeah, we need to rally around, make sure those people can eat. But where has that issue been voiced?”
Since Covid, she said, echoing Matthei’s point, “It has eliminated the need for back-and-forth” transactions.
“Personally, when I opened up my shop two years ago, there was a rash of robberies,” in the area, she noted.
Now, “we don’t have cash. You can’t rob us. I like the peace of mind that I can press a button and have my funds deposited into a bank and no one has to count down [the bills in a cash register], make a mistake. Walk away with it. We’re already nurturing these young people to work in a business. I like the idea that they don’t have to handle that and, especially if I’m not in the establishment, I can close my business remotely. All they have to do is lock the door and clean up – and that relieves a lot of stress and pressure …”
Responding to comments, Reid said he has not seen any evidence from the communities that have implemented cash requirements that these policies have caused any increase in crime.
“This just hasn’t panned out that these ordinances cause some massive increase in crime.”
Further, he asked the owners about their costs in credit card and debit fees over the course of a year.
“Because there’s a huge cost associated with just not accepting cash, which is what, 3% per transaction or maybe more. And so there was a cost there as well. And I’d love for us to maybe get some estimates on what the cost is annually for businesses like yours.”
To Walker-Aguilar question about where the issue came from, Reid responded there “are folks who are struggling that I’ve had conversations with. Is there a huge chorus of folks saying, ‘Hey, we really [need it]? No.
“These are folks who are not proximate to power,” he pointed out, “and traditionally don’t get involved and advocate for themselves,” he said.
He said what officials do know from an FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) survey is that roughly 4.5% of U.S. households are unbanked. Applying that to Evanston, he estimated that would amount to 5,000 people. “And to me, that’s insignificant,” he said.
Council members pulled back from adopting the cashless ordinance at their Jan. 23, after Council member Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, raised concern about approving the proposal without sufficient information.
“I’m just trying to figure out how many businesses were affecting —how many people we’re helping, if there’s another way to do it,” Suffredin said.
“I just I think without any of that information, it’s irresponsible to pass this. It may be a good policy objective, but we don’t know who we’re hurting, who we’re helping and if there’s a better way to do it, then it’s proposed.
“…I don’t think everyone here knows how many businesses in their own wards they would be affecting, and I think they don’t know how many people on their wards they’d be helping. And I think it’s irresponsible to vote ‘Yes.’ Until we have that information at least.”
Officials are expected to bring the issue to the city’s Feb. 22 Economic Development Committee meeting, as well as the city’s Equity Empowerment Commission, which is next scheduled to meet Feb. 16, before returning to Council members, probably for their second meeting in March.
In the meantime, officials are encouraging businesses to provide further feedback to a survey about the ordinance at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HPCNYYD