The Pitfalls of Convenience in a Cashless World

Todd Paonessa
Oct 11, 2019 · 5 min read
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32 seconds. I can get in… and out… in 32 seconds.

As Punchcut’s Office Manager I am charged with shopping for the necessities that keep our designers and clients alive. While some of those sundries can be delivered, others require a trip to the convenience store. Cream for our coffee is a convenience store thing. I can’t order a case of half & half online and expect all those cartons to stay fresh. Nope, I need to regularly leave the office to acquire perishables. If you know me, (and I’ve met quite a few of you in my many years here) you know I hate leaving my precious office for even a minute.

Actually, stepping out of the office really isn’t the problem. I can pre-order my lunch online and be back at my desk before my screen saver kicks in. It’s been fun to watch the neighborhood eateries improve their services over the years. The same cannot be said for “convenience” stores. Walking into one of those is a journey back to the stone age of shopping. Endless aisles under florescent lights, terrible muzak and long lines that drive me absolutely bonkers.

If I’m being honest that last bit is the real problem. Not the bonkers part, we’re all a bit bonkers here at Punchcut — I’m talking about the LONG lines. While the shopping experience is mostly under my control the checkout surely is not. Sometimes I’ll walk in, see customers waiting in a line seven miles long and just walk out. Cream be damned. My patience is worn thin waiting for others to pay. That ceremonial dance between customer, cashier and payment opens up a universe of frustrations that equates to valuable time going down the drain. If I tallied up the hours I’ve wasted standing in line holding carton after carton of cream I’d surely regurgitate chunks of the milky stuff.

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When a coworker informed me that an Amazon Go opened nearby, I didn’t think much of it. For those of you not familiar, Amazon has been experimenting with stores that have no check out line. Just walk in, open the Go app and scan it at the gate. You then walk around the store, put whatever you like in your bag and walk out. Done. On the way home a receipt is emailed and magically you’re charged for the items you left with.

At Punchcut we had been monitoring the advent of these stores and the technology capable of making them possible. We’ve even worked on similar concepts for clients. My tech savvy coworkers spoke of the motion sensors and cameras and all the possibilities. I was a bit suspicious. Meh, sounds novel, I guess. I doubt they will have anything of interest but I’ll give it a try and download… another… Amazon… app*. By the way, that’s seven now. Considering all the Amazon Terms of Agreements I’ve blindly said Yes to over the years I’m pretty sure at this point I’ve legally given Jeff Bezos permission to watch me take a shower.

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Imagine my surprise when I finally walked through those pearly plastic gates to find a clean, pleasant convenience store… with Half & Half. So yeah, my last trip to this speedy experiment in line free convenience only cost me 32 seconds of my life. The app told me that. I got in and out in 32 seconds. I can’t wait to go back. What’s that? We’re out of cream? Excellent. Ready, set, Go.

Fast forward a few weeks… my hometown, Philadelphia, passes a law banning cashless stores. Stop the hoagie say what? Philly can’t Go for that? Why on earth would an entire city deprive itself the the slick speedy shopping that I found so fun? What sort of tyrannical government would deny its constituents those 32 seconds of Amazonian convenience?

As it turns out there are some very good reasons. The tech bubble surrounding my beloved San Francisco often shelters me from very simple truths. Not everyone has access to the credit needed for a cashless transaction. Some people will never have SEVEN Amazon apps on their phone and who can blame them? Going too fast into a world of pure convenience has the potential to create pockets of exclusivity that risk depriving access to others.

Here at Punchcut I’m on the Operations team. Occasionally we’re asked to help the research teams and it’s always fascinating and fun. Sometimes we participate in brainstorming sessions with the designers and they are always loads of fun. A team of open minds working together to solve problems. No idea is too crazy. Nothing is impossible. So when I hear that a city has banned all cashless stores I have to ask the obvious question. Really? Where’s the creative thinking? Are there no better solutions? No workarounds?

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Thankfully a few weeks later Amazon announced they would add cashiers to their Go stores. I’m happy to see the company recognized their responsibility to the greater community but I can’t help but think that a little extra upfront research on their part might have avoided this controversy. Our elected officials might routinely find themselves forced to solve problems of this nature with additional restrictions when innovators don’t do their due diligence while serving the god of Disruption.

Two wrongs do not make a right.

Those trying to experiment with innovative tech need to think beyond their bubble by engaging with those outside of their organization. We need to all work together.

Cities that offer knee jerk restrictions will likely find their constituents longing for playful experiment in convenience. Conversely any company that does not work carefully to provide inclusive services might find itself shut out of the market by elected officials that can’t see past the next election. Innovation and research will allow everyone to move forward while short-sighted bans leave us all waiting in line.

Are go and stop the only two answers? There must be a way for cities to experiment with and encourage alternate forms of convenience while making sure everyone has equal access. How would *you* solve this?

*Amazon Alexa, Prime Video, Amazon Music, Whole Foods, Amazon, Prime Now AND Amazon Go = seven

Update: Since writing this article, Todd has recently bested his record with a new time to beat: 29 seconds.


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