A Day Without Cash: Are Chinese Consumers Ready?

2017-08-07 12:38:49

SHANGHAI — Two of the country’s biggest mobile payment platforms, Alipay and WeChat, are encouraging consumers to adapt to electronic payment over paper money, experimenting with the possibilities of a cashless society in a “No Cash Day” event on Tuesday. WeChat introduced the concept last year, rewarding users with money for making payments via the app.

While going cashless for convenience has become the norm in China, there have been reports of businesses entirely refusing to accept bank notes, which has not only aggravated some customers but is also against the law.

Cui Lin, a 29-year-old translator, told Sixth Tone that the no-cash policy she encountered at Réel Mall in Shanghai was “an unpleasant experience,” and that she would prefer not to shop there in the future. “Mobile payment is meant to make shopping more convenient for customers by offering more options, but it is causing trouble now,” she said. “What if my phone dies or if elderly people can’t use the mobile apps?”

When Sixth Tone visited Réel on Friday, most of the food shops on the B2 level said they only accept mobile payment or bank cards. Bruce Zhang, manager of dessert chain Awfully Chocolate, said the store adheres to the mall’s mobile payment policy, and that electronic payment “makes it easier to settle daily accounts.”

Fresh food startup Hema Xiansheng is also among the outlets that do not accept cash. The Beijing and Shanghai branches of the startup, owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, only accept mobile payment through Alipay, membership cards, or gift cards. The store came under scrutiny last year for its no-cash policy and subsequently changed its rules. However, customers who insist on using cash are still required to purchase a store card in order to pay.

While many people see mobile payment as an alternative to crumpled bank notes and loose change, others say it’s not for everyone. “I actually don’t want to receive money through WeChat because I’m not good with mobile phones,” said Zhu Xifang, who runs a street food stall in Shanghai’s Jing’an District. “But every customer seems to love it.”

As WeChat kicked off a weeklong celebration on Aug. 1 leading up to “No Cash Day,” the app’s parent company, Tencent, said in a statement that the idea of the event is not to eliminate cash transactions entirely but to offer a more convenient and eco-friendly shopping experience.

The growing popularity of mobile payment platforms has reduced consumers and business owners like Cui and Zhu to a minority. According to a 2017 report jointly published by Tencent, market research firm Ipsos, and Renmin University, 84 percent of the 6,500 respondents said they wouldn’t mind going cashless. In the first half of 2017, China’s mobile payment transactions topped 58.8 trillion yuan ($8.8 trillion) and accounted for 74 percent of all online payments, with 42 percent of in-store purchases made with non-cash payments.

Zhou Ming of Minton Lawyers told Sixth Tone that while mobile payments are a growing trend, businesses cannot completely rule out cash transactions. “It’s unfair for consumers to not be able to use cash when the shop has cashiers, but the punishment for rejecting cash payment is unclear under the law,” he said.

In June 2016, a noodle shop in southern China’s Guangdong province that reportedly refused cash payments from customers was investigated by the local branch of the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank. “It not only violates the law but also damages consumers’ interests,” the bank wrote in a statement, referring to the practice of rejecting cash. The shop took down its “No Cash” sign the following month.

Editors: Kenrick Davis and Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A bank card payment station is seen at a farmers market in Sanya, Hainan province, July 18, 2017. Wu Haoning/VCG)