Swiper in Distress: Maneuvering the cash culture of Berlin’s small businesses

"Isn’t capitalism bad enough without making it lame?” asks Omnified contributor Eleanor Cantor while trying to pay for lunch in Kreuzberg with a credit card.

Photo by Annette Fischer on Unsplash

A post for Omnified by Eleanor Cantor

Credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards with credit options attached — these culprits are often responsible for reckless spending and pits of eternal debt — except here, in our fair city of Berlin.

Yes, my friends, Berlin is perhaps the only European capital in which relying on a credit card would actually save you money. How? Simply, by seldom being accepted anywhere.

On many a working day, I have dragged my feet through the slushy February snow or under the scalding August sun in search of a small business that would accept my Visa or debit card and sell me lunch. Peevishly I’d peek from behind the door at every restaurant and bistro along the way and ask: “Akzeptieren Sie Karten?”

“Sorry, cash only,” they’d answer. And so eventually, instead of irresponsibly splashing out on an order of truffle linguine, a halloumi Teller or a sabzi jalfrezi, I would enter Lidl (chain supermarkets being the only reliable place where credit cards are regularly accepted). By then, exhausted and faint, I’d purchase a couple of buns and a yogurt, then settle down on a street bench to have my 1.65-euro lunch.

On other occasions, I would end up spending more than I had actually intended. Desperately looking for a last-minute birthday present on a late Saturday afternoon, I would move from gift shop to vintage store in my Kiez, looking for an independent yet card-friendly establishment.

Some shops would answer the “Do you accept card?” question in the affirmative but then warn me in a foreboding tone of a 15-euro card minimum (or 10 or 5 or 25 or any arbitrary sum in between).

“Kein Problem,” I’d say.

And to myself, I’d think: “Hmmm…so they want to make me buy more! Well, fair enough, I don’t fancy a walk to the next ATM two miles away. So it’s a win-win situation, oder?”

A little later, having found what I needed, I’d pick up a random item at the till — a heart-shaped eraser, say, or a hologram picture of an owl — and add it to the book, t-shirt or luxury soap set I chose as a gift, just in order to reach the minimum charge.

Yet, the disapproving look I would get at the cash register, combined with a sigh and a wordless snatching of my Visa from my hand, would tell me that rather than pleasing the owner by spending more at their shop, I’d actually been guilty of some strange retail faux pas.

But why, you might ask, do I just not carry cash? Well, trust me, I have no sympathy for credit card companies. I do not think highly of luring the masses into impulsive shopping sprees whilst collecting consumer data.

Still, there’s something about the handling of crumpled notes and fiddly coins that I find somewhat uncouth, compared to the elegant swipe, the contactless hover, the plastic kiss of card and device. Furthermore, even after 20 years in Germany, I still choose knocking my head against the wall instead of accepting things as they are. After all, why choose my battles when I can get angry and rant about the things I cannot change?

Or can I?

I have of late, started asking shopkeepers who do not accept cards — this simple question: “Why not?” After all, isn’t capitalism bad enough without making it lame? If we’re bound to buy into this system, let the buying and selling be quick and painless! Let’s get it over and done with.

The small to medium business owners in my Kiez were ready with their excuses: The set up of the system is too expensive, or too complicated, or the charge for each purchase is too high to make it worthwhile, or – the surprisingly honest: “ah…mit Karte…then it is all written down somewhere….” In other words, the reasons for keeping the business “cash only” vary between laziness, frugality, technophobia and tax evasion.

Perplexed by the results of my mini survey, I decided to turn to my Irish friend David Gordon, who has installed a card payment system in his independent bookshop “Curious Fox” in Neukölln. Dave and I normally talk about Guinness, books, and records, rather than matters of commerce, so he was quite surprised when I asked for his insight on the cash versus credit question yet nevertheless laid his cards on the table:

Dave, why did you decide to accept credit and debit cards in your shop?

We decided to accept cards because it was clear we were losing sales. A lot of sales in the book trade would be impulse buys and if people don’t have the cash and if you don’t take card…People would ask if we could hold the books while they go to the ATM and then never come back.

How expensive and/or complicated was it to set up the system you are using?

There was a one-off fee of 80 euros to purchase the device and then quite low transaction fees after that. Traditional card machines are rented from the bank for around 30 euros a month, according to our research at the time and have higher transaction fees and more complicated to install. The thing we have just needs a smartphone and WiFi.

Is it mainly tourists or foreigners who ask to pay by card?

No, it’s a cross section of about 50% of all our customers. Our regulars know we take card and so don’t have to worry about having cash when they drop in. But tourists do ask if we take card, pretty much every day.

Do you have a minimum purchase amount for transactions?

The machine has a minimum of 1 euro, so we don’t impose a higher one ourselves. We tried to make credit card payments a minimum of 10 euros as the transaction fee is three times higher than EC Karte but with the advent of “banks” like N26 which give all their customers a MasterCard instead of an EC Karte it became too annoying to deal with. So, the minimum is a 1 euro regardless.

Any other thought you have on this subject?

I have conflicted thoughts about the cashless economy — privacy concerns etc. —but we’ve clearly gained many sales and customers by offering more ways to pay.

***

You read right. It took just a smartphone and Wifi…

So, if, according to Dave, there are no real objective obstacles to card payment, why are Berlin shops so set against it?

I believe the answer lies somewhere else entirely.

See, looking back on the past year, I realized I have been refused purchase in Berlin for a variety of other reasons, among them:

Too big a note (“I don’t have change”), too small a coin (“we don’t take cents”), being the first customer in the shop (“I’m still dressing the window”), being the last customer in the shop (“I’ve turned the machine off”), as well as: not choosing enough items, wanting to purchase something from the window (“we undress the doll only on Tuesdays”), and wanting to buy two pizza slices that were not corners – “you have to take at least one corner!”

All this is very puzzling for me, coming from the Middle East where I could pay anywhere with any element of my local currency manufactured by the state bank, and in many places also with U.S. dollars, euros, and practically any card in the galaxy. When it comes to completing a transaction, both parties are mostly trusting, keen, flexible and creative: “Let’s make it happen!”, vendor and shopper seem to think. I’ve traded LPs for hummus, I paid for a birthday brunch by leaving my HiFi at the venue, I’ve sipped iced lemonade on a hot day, while the cafe owner went out to fetch change from my note, and of course, while they were absent, I served the customers who wandered in.

But here it is different. For Berliners, I come to realize, it is not the products which are the luxury but the act of purchase itself. “Buying” isn’t to be taken for granted. It is a right to be earned, something you should qualify for, not something you are sold.

It is a test I seem to fail on an almost a daily basis, except…well, except in Lidl.

So see you on my bench. BYOB.

 

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