Cashless transactions could lead to unemployment

Cashless world: Sweden

The most famous ATM in the world.

The Swedes are crazy. The video from October 2, 2015 shows a festival in Skoghall, a Swedish village. A band plays, a man throws candy from the roof, a politician gives interviews. And all "because of the most ridiculous thing in the world," as an English newspaper will write: the inauguration of a new ATM. The musicians sing "Vi har fått en ny bankautomat", the politician ceremoniously cuts the ribbon, and the people from Skoghall stand in line to withdraw money. A viewer films the whole thing and puts it on YouTube - it will be the most watched video in Europe this weekend.

Sweden should be cashless by March 24, 2023, as the first country in the world. This is what a current report on behalf of the Swedish Trade Council predicts. One is well on the way to it. In Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, people already say “No Cash” at many tills and counters, four out of five times people shop without cash. Tourists leave with as many crowns as they took off. Coffee, chewing gum at the kiosk, the collections in the church and the public toilet, everything is done here via debit cards or the Swish payment app, even beggars put up a sign with their Swish number next to their hats.

Skoghall is halfway between Stockholm and Oslo. From the city of Karlstad I take the bus for a quarter of an hour through birch trees towards the lake. Colored wooden houses are scattered across the peninsula. Skoghall has 14,000 inhabitants, but the center is as manageable as a Monopoly game, a dozen shops are lined up around a huge parking lot. Here they drive up with their Volvos, the pick-ups, the old Opel station wagons with the headlights on, to go shopping, to play bingo, to withdraw money.

And here is the world-famous ATM, turquoise blue on brick red.

I'm standing in the square in front of the Ica supermarket, where the band was playing and the man was throwing candies. Nobody is there now. Who needs the ATM today, four years after its inauguration? Are the Skoghallers really indomitable citizens who resist the cashless movement?

A man on a rollator rolls up, takes out money and uses it to buy two packets of cigarettes and schnapps in the supermarket. He holds out his wallet to the cashier, she plucks out the fresh notes, the change rattles into the bowl, where the man picks out coin by coin. Then it rolls away again.

Two men are standing in front of the supermarket, in weatherproof vests and with red heads. You seem to be waiting for someone. Or maybe they just find it strange that a stranger with a black beard prowls around the ATM and chases after men on the walker.

A few steps further a trader has set up his stand, Ahmed Ijaz, like the Pakistani cricketer. He hangs up glittery shirts and short skirts, much too summery for Skoghall. A coffee pot and a water dispenser are on a table, next to them are the cash box and a mobile card reader. Ijaz estimates that one in twenty is paying cash, half using card and half using swish. He points to a slip of paper under the tent with his ten-digit number. With Swish, his duties are lower than with card payments, with cash he pays high fees when he takes the money to the bank. There is no legal obligation for sellers to accept cash. Ijaz shrugs his shoulders and says: "It's not me, it's the customers who decide."

In a survey by the Swedish Reichsbank last year, only 13 percent of those questioned said they had paid for their last purchase with notes and coins; in 2010 it was three times as many. As you might expect, the old in the country need cash more often and the young in the cities swish, but the differences are small. Six out of ten Swedes use the payment app, eight out of ten debit or credit cards. Not only the banks are driving this development, but also the businesses - and the customers, with their enthusiasm for technology and their endless trust in the state and banks.

For half an hour nobody comes to withdraw money or buy clothes. Monday and rain and Skoghall, that's a difficult combination. The two men are still standing in front of the supermarket. You don't speak English, you understand me. Ulf and Tommy can't remember the last time they had cash in their hands. But they remember the Bancomat festival, they laugh, and their heads turn even redder.

Opposite the supermarket is the “Sheriffens Allservice” workshop. Jenny Andersson, 33, sells and mends bicycles and prams, makes jewelry. The sheriff, that's her husband, who always wears a cowboy hat, it was because of him that she moved to Skoghall with her four children two years ago. Here, too, most customers pay by card or Swish, some in cash. Andersson would have to take the cash to Karlstad and deposit it in an exchange office. To avoid the trip and the high fees, she and the sheriff pay part of their wages in cash. So the money stays in the village.

At the counters of Nordea and Swedbank in Karlstad, money is neither paid out nor accepted, as is the case in half of all bank branches in Sweden. In 2013, a robber robbed a cashless bank in Stockholm and left without loot. In the past decade, bank robberies in Sweden have gone from over a hundred to a handful. But the unemployed robbers don't go mushroom picking. The Swedish police reported fraudulent transactions and extorted Swish transfers. Of robbers who drive close to trucks from behind at 80 km / h without lights and clear out packages of Apple products at full speed. The endangered bearded owl, whose eggs are stolen on the coast and which, once hatched, are traded for up to a million crowns (100,000 francs).

Skoghall is the most peaceful of the many places she has lived, says Jenny Andersson, but break-ins are a big problem. A week ago, next door, in Aunt Ottilia's second-hand shop, the glass door was smashed at night and the cash register was stolen. The clothes dealer Ahmed Ijaz also says that his warehouse near Karlstad was broken into a month ago. The thieves only took clothes with them, he doesn't keep any cash there, but he is afraid of being attacked at his stand one day. Cash means a risk for businesses and private individuals, sheriff or not. Jenny Andersson says: "We will accept cash until our bike workshop is robbed."

Security is one of the many arguments in favor of a cashless future. Cash is dangerous. Cash does unnecessary work. Cash encourages corruption. Cash is unsanitary. The cashless future sounds simple and cool, like in a Swish commercial, but the group “Cash Uprising” has been resisting it for several years. She sees this as a conspiracy by the banks and calls on the state to make cash available across the country and for everyone. In Sweden there are around a million “digital outsiders” - seniors without credit cards, immigrants without bank accounts, people with disabilities - who would be excluded if cash disappears or the nearest ATM is ten kilometers away.

The story of Skoghall's ATM starts right there, the festival would have liked the cash insurgents. Shortly before Christmas 2014, the last bank counter in the village closed. Swedbank writes that most customers would do their financial transactions and payments digitally anyway, the others could drive to the branch in Karlstad. But the people of Skoghall didn't want to leave their peninsula to pay bills or withdraw money, they wanted to remain independent.

Urban Svensson greets you as an oversized cardboard figure in the revolving door of the supermarket and looks happier than in real life. The Skoghallers owe it to him that they have regained a bit of independence. When asked about the ATM, he replied: "Uff, that's an old story." When his young colleague Linda, who translates our conversation, tells him she doesn't know the story, he tells it.

In 2014 Svensson was the manager of the Ica supermarket in Skoghall, in front of which the ATM is installed. Today the 57-year-old works in a different branch, a few kilometers outside. After the bank counter closed, Svensson contacted Bankomat, which operates ATMs for the four largest banks in the country. Their answer: There is no suitable location in Skoghall, and they also demand a share in the construction costs. So Svensson got an offer for an extension in front of the supermarket, especially for the vending machine, and spoke to the owner of the shop. He took over the construction costs and the ATM group will pay rent for the site for the next fifty years. Even if cash in Sweden may have long since disappeared by then.

Svensson plays the video of the festival on his mobile phone to show his colleague. He's the man who threw the candy off the roof, he also invited the journalists, the councilor and the band. Linda and Urban sing along softly: "Vi har fått en ny bank machine." The musicians have become friends of his, he says, and he often hires them for events. "People call them the Ica Band and always ask if they played the Bancomat song."

In the first few months people drove to Skoghall from far away to withdraw money, the video and newspaper reports made the ATM a tourist attraction. A team of reporters from Scotland came and interviewed the councilor. During the conversation it turned out that the Scots believed it was the first ATM in all of Sweden.

One year after the inauguration of the ATM, Svensson left Skoghall, although he could have become mayor here, and took over the management of a new, larger supermarket in nearby Hammarö. There is also an ATM at the entrance. Seven of the ten checkouts are cashless, only eight percent of customers pay in cash. This is positive for business, says Svensson, and less cash means less work. So where did his commitment to ATMs come from? "If you run a business in a small town, you have to listen to what customers want."

Your wish has come true. Svensson cannot say whether the ATM also boosted business in Skoghall. From 2016 to 2018, cash withdrawals fell by 14 percent. In the whole of the country, the decline is more than twice as high in the same period, with more than a thousand ATMs dismantled in Sweden in the past eight years. Skoghall is a special case, the Gaul of the cash insurgents. Contrary to the prophecy of the Trade Council, there will still be cash here in four years' time. Once, after work, there is even a short queue in front of the ATM.

In the supermarket there is a table with used books for 20 kroner (2 francs), a money box is next to a card with a Swish number. Next to it are four machines lined up with toys and snacks - and a coin slot. Even the concrete mixer for the children only swings for a ten-kroner coin. What happens if there is no more cash? How do children pay for licking and swinging today? Because when they collect and sell strawberries, when they have a cake stand with the Seepfadi, they always collect with Swish.

"It's difficult to teach children how to handle money these days," says Jenny Andersson in the bicycle workshop. Her eight-year-old daughter Julia went from door to door for the first time last winter with Jultidningar, so-called Christmas newspapers. Customers order books, socks and gifts, and the children receive points that they can exchange for products or money. In Julia's room there was a poster with which she could calculate how many points she needed for her cell phone. So she should learn that money is not printed at the machine, but earned through work.

Andersson also gives her children pocket money for tidying up and washing up. But when they go to Karlstad or the shopping center on the weekend, they can't buy anything with their savings. So they return the coins to their mother and she pays by card.

In Skoghall there is still no place where you can only pay by card, but one where you have to pay in cash: the bingo club. Outside, rollators shine in the rain, inside the drivers sit individually at tables, with their bingo cards in front of them. There is coffee and cinnamon rolls. 22, 17, 69, a computer voice reads the numbers drawn. The cards cost between 5 and 40 kroner (50 cents and 4 francs) and must be paid for in cash. If someone doesn't have any cash with them, they can withdraw it here, says the game master and proudly points to the machine in the corner.

The new edition of the Swedish Monopoly is not played with notes, but with cards - but here in Skoghall there isn't one, but two ATMs, and they will probably be around as long as people play bingo. Anyone can withdraw money in "bingo wrestling" when the club is open. Small prizes are paid out in cash, larger ones are transferred. The game master wears a watch with two alarm buttons with which she can call the police. She looks at me and says the police station is just around the corner. 18, 56, 3. An old woman raises her arms and shouts "Bingo!" The game master says: "Oh, we have a winner!"

Ahmed Ijaz dismantles his stand outside. Finally the moment comes, for which I have waited so long: I withdraw 100 kronor at the world-famous Skoghall ATM, buy wool socks in the second-hand shop and squander the change at the lick vending machine.

On my credit card bill I can see that I paid CHF 10 49 for the 100 crowns, plus CHF 10 commission.

Patric Marino is a volunteer at the “NZZ-Folio”.

This article comes from the November 2019 NZZ Folio magazine on the subject of "Money". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.