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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

September 7, 2013 at 8:24 PM

Are wallets on their way out?

Is this goodbye? (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Is this goodbye? (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Last week, for the first time ever, I walked into a store and bought something with nothing.

I was at the shoe counter at Nordstrom, a pair of Under Armour sneakers boxed and ready to go. I’d forgotten my Nordstrom notes — coupons the store mails customers who use its credit card — and asked the sales associate to look them up. He did.

“Do you want to buy this with your Nordstrom card?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, opening my wallet.

“Don’t bother,” he said, looking at his screen and pressing a button. “You’re all set.”

Back home, I pulled out my wallet and looked inside. There was my license, the credit card I didn’t need, a bunch of business cards and gift cards I forgot I had and, tucked in the back, some stray $1 bills I didn’t remember putting there.

It’s hard to imagine a world without cash. It’s harder to imagine a world without wallets. But the way things are going, you have to wonder if we’re destined to lose both.

I asked readers what Seattle-area businesses they like that are still cash only. Paseo’s came up, and Red Mill Burgers and a sampling of others, mostly restaurants. The one you mentioned most often was our iconic fast-food burger joint, Dick’s Drive-In.

I called Jim Spady, son of Dick’s founder Dick Spady. Dick’s has had almost the same menu and used almost the same recipes since 1954. My husband and I pool what little cash we have — if we have it — when we feel like a Dick’s burger. If I’m honest, Dick’s is the biggest reason I don’t take those $1’s out of my wallet. Will Dick’s ever take credit cards?

Yeah, it will, Jim Spady said, “almost certainly” within the next five years. That’s saying something. Dick’s resists change as a habit. It has set up ATMs at all but one of its six locations just to hang on. But customers have been asking for this change for ages. And with the risk growing that the cash-only policy turns new customers away, Spady figures it’s almost time to give in.

“It’s inevitable,” he said.

Backtrack to two weeks ago, when I set my wallet, keys and phone down next to my notebook as I got ready to interview Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi, featured in last week’s column.

“I try never to carry a purse,” I explained.

“I never carry a wallet,” he said, and held up his iPhone.

Partovi uses a card iPhone case, which I’d heard of, but never seen. His, made by Speck, has a narrow slot in the back to stash a couple cards. He carries his license, a debit card and a credit card. That’s it.

“It’s all I ever need,” he said.

More and more these days, my wallet reminds me of the wire basket on the edge of our console table. It just collects junk. I’m tossing these business cards as soon as I take the time to figure out whom to email. This coffee-shop punch card is useless; I hardly ever go and don’t think to pull it out even when I’m there.

As for receipts, I keep the physical ones only when I need to document reimbursable travel expenses or when I buy clothes I may need to return. Otherwise, I ask cashiers to recycle them, or I walk a few steps and toss them myself.

I carry membership cards on my key ring for QFC, our gym and drop-in day care. My husband, whose wallet is so thin it’s barely there, doesn’t even want bulk on his keys. He types his phone number — actually mine — into the QFC keypad, and recites his gym membership number to the receptionist.

I’m right there with him, really. Those Nordstrom notes I said I forgot at home? I didn’t. Ever since I learned staff could look them up at the store, I’ve left them in their envelopes and danced a little dance at the register. “So sorry. Must’ve left them at home. Would you mind looking them up?”

It can’t be too much longer before these shortcuts become the main road. So it’s no wonder companies are scrambling to create the end-all, be-all digital wallet. A payment system called Square makes it easier for even small vendors to take credit cards, then emails customers the receipt. LevelUp, an app I use at my neighborhood coffee shop, lets you pay just by scanning a QR code with your smartphone. Seattle startup QThru is working on ways to digitize grocery-store purchasing — coupons, loyalty programs and all.

Money is all in the clouds these days, even the real ones. Airlines have operated “cashless cabins” in the sky for years. What if the practice touches down?

It would be convenient but cost us. Jim Spady estimates that moving Dick’s to credit cards will cost $100,000 per year in fees, enough to give its 150 hourly employees a 50-cent per-hour raise.

As for the customer, the Nordstrom staffer didn’t find me in the system with just my name. He needed the last few digits of my Social Security number. Retailers know more and more about us these days — everything we buy, everything we search for.

Businesses pay with profits. Consumers, with information. If the keys that unlock our financial transactions aren’t with us in our wallets, they have to be everywhere we use them, all the time.

And let’s not forget it.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

0 Comments | More in Column, Disruption, Habits, Money, Privacy, Retail, Seattle

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