Why online shoppers pay with cash

By Felix Salmon
July 5, 2012
Stephanie Clifford, of just how two-tier the US economy has become:

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Here’s a reminder, from Stephanie Clifford, of just how two-tier the US economy has become:

Walmart says the majority of in-store purchases are made with cash or debit cards, and that about 15 percent are made with credit cards.

I wrote on Monday about the downside of painless payments, which is that they make it too easy to spend money. And customers at Walmart, it seems, are acutely aware of that particular syndrome.

Megan McArdle moved to a no-debts, no-credit-cards personal-finance system in 2009, where you set up a detailed budget and put cash in different envelopes. “It sounds unbearably tedious,” she wrote. “But it’s actually incredibly freeing. I have never before felt like I had total control over my money”.

This is the downside of any payments revolution: the easier and cheaper it is to spend money, the less control we have over our own spending. Which in turn means that ultra-convenient payments, probably using your phone in some way or another, are realistically going to be a luxury for the middle classes and a cause of stress and danger for families living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Such families, it turns out, are very good — by necessity — at budgeting. Being forced to pay for everything with cash, or with its plastic equivalent, the prepaid debit card, is not an inconvenience so much as a helpful discipline. There are debt instruments out there, for emergencies — but credit cards aren’t used as a payments technology, because they make it far too easy to get into expensive debt without even realizing you’re doing so.

Clifford’s story, about the increasing number of people paying for things online and then picking them up in person, talks a lot about convenience: a Sears spokesman, for instance, is quoted talking about customers’ “need for immediacy”, while a chap from the Container Store conjures up a mom running errands with kids in the car, who just wants to pick stuff up and move on.

But it seems to me that the convenience here runs just as much the other way. Yes, there are people who are shopping online, who want whatever they just bought, and who want it now. These are people who would be shopping online anyway, and who just don’t want to wait to get their goods.

But there are many more people, I think — in number if not in purchasing power — who limit themselves to cash or its functional equivalents, and who welcome the idea of being able to browse and shop online. Shopping at Walmart is never exactly fun, and if you can just punch in an order online — especially if you can simply re-enter your family’s regular weekly shopping list — that saves time in the store and also makes it less likely that you’ll be tempted by some impulse purchase. This kind of customer isn’t using a different fulfillment channel for what would otherwise be a regular online order; instead, they’re basically just using a more convenient way of picking out the stuff they want at a store they’d visit anyway.

At Walmart, clicking the “pay with cash” option doesn’t literally mean you’re going to pay with cash:

In the first weeks of the cash option, Walmart noticed that a different set of customers also found the service appealing. About 40 percent of the customers who paid with cash when ordering online ended up using noncash options, like a credit card or check, when they arrived at the store. They simply had not wanted to provide that financial information online. “There’s still a large segment of people out there afraid of identity theft or just plain putting their credit card online,” Mr. Anderson said.

My gut feeling here is that although fear of identity theft might be part of what’s going on, another part is simply good financial self-discipline. If you want to keep track of where your money is, and if you want to minimize temptation, a “never buy anything online” rule is simple and effective. If you can enter a card number online to pick goods up at a store, then you can enter the same card number online to buy things from just about any website in the world. And many people simply can’t afford to open themselves up to those kind of opportunities.

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