Calls for bans on cashless stores unnecessarily indict cashierless stores

In recent weeks, there have been increasing movements in some areas of the country to ban cashless stores. Most recently, Bay Area politician David J. Canepa called for a ban on cashless stores like Amazon Go in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, with his main concerns being a possible loss of jobs and what he believes is the inherent possibility for discrimination (since many low-income shoppers want to pay only in cash).

To break down his argument, I think it’s important to differentiate between cashless and cashierless. Canepa’s op-ed calls for a ban on cashless stores but only mentions Amazon Go and details the potential loss of jobs from eliminating cashiers.

Cashless and cashierless are not the same thing. A store can be cashless and still have cashiers or conversely be cashierless and still accept cash.

Amazon Go happens to be both – it eliminates cashiers (though they still have more employees on site than a typically convenience store), and customers can only pay via the Amazon Go app, so it has also eliminated cash and other forms of payment. Amazon Go isn’t the only cashless game in town. Plenty of stores and restaurants with cashiers don’t accept cash anymore. Sweetgreen and Drybar are two examples.

But not all cashierless stores eliminate cash payments. The Standard Store in San Francisco, for instance, uses autonomous checkout but gives customers the option of paying via credit/debit card, the Standard Store app, or, in the next month or so, cash. And, like Amazon Go, Standard Store has staff on the floor assisting customers – it just doesn’t have cashiers. [Disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Standard Cognition, the company behind the store.]

Autonomous checkout uses cameras to track which items each customer has, without using any facial recognition or other biometric information. When customers are ready to check out, they simply walk out (if paying via app), or stop at a kiosk, where the contents of their order are instantly recognized and the customer uses their payment option of choice.

The lack of facial recognition is key. In his op-ed, Canepa references the potential for discrimination in cashless stores, a valid concern since many low-income shoppers pay in cash. But autonomous checkout can help reduce discrimination. Unlike human cashiers, autonomous checkout systems do not know (or care) if the customer is male, female, black, white, Hispanic, Asian or other. That data is not collected because it’s irrelevant to the transaction at hand. The system only knows that Shopper A is buying milk, bread, and eggs at a total cost of $9.87.

While in his op-ed, Canepa has painted cashless and cashierless stores with the same brush, they are in fact two different things. Amazon Go’s elimination of cashiers is a red herring. His real problem is the elimination of cash, a valid concern that’s not a new sentiment, but rather has been well covered in the media in recent months.

Michael Suswal is Co-founder and COO of Standard Cognition.

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