diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 02, 2015

At the station on my way home from work last night, a lady was standing at the top of the escalator with a collection bucket. She wasn't having much luck.

Perhaps it was the charity she was supporting. I hadn't heard of them before, and only got a brief glimpse of name and logo as I passed. One particular word in the charity's title stood out as the kind of thing people like to give money to. But maybe people are unwilling to donate money to a charity they're unfamiliar with.

Perhaps it was where she was standing. The top of the escalators is a very busy place, and people rush past quickly. There might be only a second or two between spotting the bucket and walking past, so by the time your brain has processed the situation you've passed by.

Perhaps it was her lack of animation. Normally you'd expect a collector to at least try to gain your attention, but she was having none of it. No gestures, no patter, no bucket-waving, just a static pose and a beatific smile. Maybe TfL have a rule against charity collectors on their premises being too intrusive.

Perhaps it was being the rush hour. Stopping in your tracks inside a station isn't the recommended course of action when all those around you are streaming forward. More to the point, what little wriggle room there was had been occupied by a lady holding a bucket, so there wasn't much opportunity to pause.

Perhaps it was general selfishness. People tend to think of themselves more than others, so why would they go out of their way to donate money to others? Out of sight is out of mind, so if these other people are suffering, well, they can simply carry on coping with their situation.

But I suspect it was coins. Because who has coins these days?

Picture the scene. You're entering a tube station - what need have you of coins? Tube stations are increasingly a coin-free zone these days, and deliberately so. All the ticket offices have closed, or will have done by the end of the month. Yes there are still machines, but turn-up-and-go tickets cost rather more than a couple of quid these days so most people don't pay with metal. Indeed most people turn up without the need for any money at all, merely a card whose credit lets them pass.

The shift from cash to plastic is particularly rapid on the tube. TfL made early strides with the introduction of the Oyster card over ten years ago, with topping-up to reduce the amount of customer interaction required. More recently they've started plugging contactless hard, in an attempt to coast on the banking system rather than continue to throw money at a bespoke system of their own. Oyster's in no immediate danger of being replaced, but the take-up of contactless will be relentless. And as for coins, forget them.

Elsewhere in our lives, the number of outlets that take coins continues to be extremely high. Turn up at a supermarket or department store or restaurant and your coins, or notes, will be accepted without question. But our spending continues to shift towards the virtual, with many of us preferring plastic to the hassle of sourcing physical money and then giving it away. It's harder to see your money ebbing away when it's digital, but convenience trumps realism, and we like life easy.

Smartphone technology is a further nudge away from cash, and is gaining ground. It's like having an electronic wallet in your pocket, a bottomless supply of bytes and bits, allowing services to be purchased at the swish of a screen. Users risk becoming unintentionally skint if their battery dies, or scratching their precious device as they grab a coffee. But who needs small change when you have a phone?

For many what's difficult isn't going cash-free, it's coping when somewhere won't take the alternative. 'Credit cards not accepted' is the signal for these people to mutter in disgust, it means they'll have to dirty themselves and go old school. I've even seen friends on Twitter sighing in despair when a shop won't take contactless, how dare they be so backward, it's like reverting to a financial dark age.

So what chance does the lady with the red bucket have? Most of the people walking by deal in plastic rather than cash. They might want to donate but she has no way of accepting their money, no gizmo to permit the transaction of a particular sum from their account to hers. And this problem is likely to remain for some years yet, while we're all still only kitted out to give rather than to receive.

There's still a place for coins and cash in our society, so long as there's a need to pay the little guy rather than the Man. And some of us will always prefer the reassurance of physical money rather than some electronic system which could fail at any time. If you've gone smart or digital or contactless, you may be the vanguard of an unstoppable future. But spare a thought for the ladies and gentlemen with buckets, and those they represent, and keep a couple of pound coins at the bottom of your pocket for when they're truly needed.

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