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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 10:57 GMT
Is cash still king or is plastic fantastic?
By John Hand
BBC News

For the first time, the amount spent on cards in the UK could outstrip the amount of cash spent, a report has suggested. And yet most people, according to one survey, still prefer using notes and coins. So is the concept of cashless society a long way off? To find out, John Hand had his ready cash confiscated for an afternoon's shopping.

The contents of my pockets are always inclined to bring out my emotional side. Some days, it is the joy of rescuing a forgotten 10 note from a pair of jeans about to go into the wash, on others it's the frustration of finding I have little more than loose change left until payday.

Credit and debit cards just don't give me the same excitement. I love the satisfaction of handing over a hard-earned wad of notes - I paid for my car in cash - that cannot be matched by signing a credit card slip.

Cash and carry

Other than occasional phone and internet transactions, my plastic cards are only used for trips to the ATM - but with more and more cashpoints charging for withdrawals, it may be time to break that cash habit and use my cards for general spending. Is the world ready for me?

Cash and carry king Raj Singh
Many of our customers don't like taking money out with them so we have to give them what they want
Raj Singh
International Cash And Carry

The first transaction of my plastic-only afternoon was simple enough. With the ticket window unstaffed at the local Tube station, it was simpler to insert my debit card in the ticket vending machine than it would have been to smooth out one of the perennially crumpled notes usually found in my pockets.

But this is about basic shopping, so where better to start my credit quest than a west London branch of Cash and Carry?

Clutching a 47p cylinder of salt, I wasn't amazed when the shop lived up to its name and wouldn't accept anything but cash. But Raj Singh, working behind the till, surprised me when he told me that would all change in three weeks.

"We're having card facilities installed. We're working in an area where many of our customers don't like taking money out with them so we have to give them what they want," he says.

As if to prove his point, a regular customer - a visually-impaired woman - arrived and announced her purse had just been stolen. Immediately, it felt safer to be cash-free.

I set myself another tricky task when I tried to buy an apple from a market stall. Trader John Fletcher says that his stall was cash-only. "All our customers spend just 2 or 3 so it's not worth us getting the equipment."

His colleague chips in: "When someone has a card, we send them across the road to Tesco but only so they can use the cashpoint."

I have to pay rental on the equipment so it costs me if people stop using cash for small purchases
Shopkeeper Michel Hanoun
Like any seasoned hack, I needed a pen to note such thoughts down. One shop, Stationery Box, refused my card in exchange for a 29p biro but Ryman's obliged and swiped my card for the princely sum of 24p. Five minutes inconvenience but I had at least made a saving.

Another journalistic necessity - a newspaper - proved harder to acquire. I tried four small newsagents but none had card facilities.

The other side of the coin was demonstrated by the major supermarkets. Tesco for a loaf of bread, Safeway for a 30p pint of milk and a carefully selected 13p banana at Sainsbury's - all on plastic.

A Sainsbury's customer even allowed me to jump the queue and found it hilarious when I whipped out the plastic. "I think you've got a very meagre lunch there," he says.

Mariah Carey bargain

But while supermarkets and other major chains such as Superdrug (bar of soap at 55p) accepted plastic, however tiny the amount, smaller independent stores were more grudging, with many setting a 5 or 10 spending minimum.

At the Aladdin's cave of convenience food that was Michel's General Food Store, shopkeeper Michel Hanoun explains he would accept my card payment for a 30p pack of crisps but would have to impose a 40p surcharge.

Ladbrokes manager David Godfrey accepts a football bet
My bet goes on. Will a 6.50 bounty be heading my way?
"All my regular customers think it is fair. I have to pay rental on the equipment so it costs me if people stop using cash for small purchases," he says.

Charity shop Oxfam had a different attitude. For a 49p second-hand Mariah Carey single, they would take the donation in whatever form.

There were a few anomalies. A main Post Office would not sell a 28p stamp but a nearby sub post office did not hesitate. And WH Smith did accept cards but not to buy Lotto tickets.

Undeterred, I decided on a 50p forecast treble on that night's football at Ladbrokes. The branch manager was so helpful I suspected he knew my betting record. Although Ladbrokes does not accept card payments at the counter, he helped me to set up an account to deposit the required amount either by phone or over the internet.


After all that shopping, refreshment was called for. But six takeaways and two sandwich shops told me they only dealt in cash and I was surprised the same applied at fast food giant McDonalds. Finally, a branch of Subway helped me beat my hunger.

Franchise manager Anjum Bashir said it was his decision rather than company policy to accept cards: "We have to move with the times."

With hunger satisfied, I tried to retire to the local alehouse but three nearby bars would only take a card payment if I spent more than 5.

This included the Salutation pub, which proudly displays pictures of a visit there a few years ago by the late Queen Mother.

Even for royalty, there are times when plastic just will not do.


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