Here’s the latest country where cash is losing its grip

Germans have started saying “nein” to cash and are moving on to plastic.

In many European countries, cash is falling out of vogue, and it’s happening most recently in the land of Oktoberfest, the Autobahn and Angela Merkel.

For the first time last year, Germans used cash for less than half of their payments, in terms of total value of sales, according to a survey published Wednesday by Bundesbank, the central bank of Germany. The last time Bundesbank did the survey, in 2014, Germans made 53% of total sales purchases in cash.

Why the shift? Card payments have increased, the bank found. Use of the “girocard,” a German debit card network, has increased about six percentage points since 2015 and now makes up 35% of payments in terms of sales purchases. Credit cards have risen slightly in popularity, but still only make up less than 5% of sales purchases in Germany.

When it comes to frequency of payments rather than their value, cash still makes up the bulk of German purchases. About 74% of purchases in 2017 were made in banknotes and coins, a drop of just five percentage points since 2014. For small purchases, Germans still prefer cash.

But Germany isn’t the only place the move away from cash is happening, according to an October 2017 study from Roubini ThoughtLab, a research firm based in New York, commissioned by the payments company Visa V, +1.46%  .

The study examined the “digital maturity” of large cities across the world, in terms of how likely they are to support digital payments instead of cash. Visa obviously has a vested interest in the topic, and has ramped up efforts to get consumers to stop using paper money. “We’re focused on putting cash out of business,” said Visa’s Chief Executive Al Kelly, at the company’s investor day in June.

The latest study divided cities into groups based on whether they were more cash-centric or digitally-centric. The rankings were based on surveys with consumers and businesses and data from sources including the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The most “digitally mature” cities, according to the study authors, were those with a prevalence of mobile payments, online banking access, ATMs, the ability to receive government benefits digitally, and plenty of shoppers using of plastic debit and credit cards. They include Stockholm, Auckland, Canberra, Copenhagen, Helsinki, London, Ottawa, Sydney and Toronto.

No American city is considered among the most “digitally mature.” Major U.S. cities including Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. were all in the second tier of cities, where people are still more likely to use cash.

Why is cash still king in the U.S.?

Usage of credit and debit cards has grown in the U.S., but many consumers still prefer cash. Although many U.S. cities have the infrastructure to support digital payments, many people have been slower to adopt them. Only about 20% of North American consumers make purchases with mobile payments regularly, according to an Accenture survey in 2015.

In fact, the amount of cash in circulation in the U.S. continues to grow, according to the Federal Reserve. There are currently some 39.8 billion bank notes in circulation, up from 25.6 billion in 2005. Consumers made some 5.8 billion withdrawals from ATMs in 2015, the exact same amount as they did in 2012, but the average amount consumers withdraw during one transaction actually rose from 2012 to 2015, from $118 per transaction to $122, the Fed found.

Part of the reason: Some Americans still do not have bank accounts. About 10 million families, or nearly 8% of the households in the U.S., don’t have any type of bank account at an insured institution, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

And even for those who do have bank accounts, there may be little incentive to switch to digital payment options, Mark Ranta, the head of digital banking solutions at ACI Worldwide ACIW, +1.94%   previously told MarketWatch. “Changing ingrained habits is not something that is easily overcome,” he said. Many consumers don’t want all of their transactions to be traceable, he said.

Why is cash less popular in cities overseas?

Countries with smaller, more concentrated populations, such as Sweden and the U.K., often have an easier time making the switch to digital, Michelle Evans, the digital consumer manager at Euromonitor International, a market-research firm, previously told MarketWatch.

The U.K. has traditionally been a global leader in payment technology. Researchers at Tufts University recently ranked countries by their readiness to go cashless, and the U.K. had one of the highest rankings, along with Sweden, Finland and Denmark. (Mastercard helped to fund the research; credit-card companies including Mastercard take a cut of transactions made on their cards, or through deals they make with institutions that issue the cards, including banks.)

London was one of the first cities worldwide to install contactless technology — a terminal that can read a payment card without it having to be swiped — on its public-transportation system.

Visa’s study found that the cities where cash is more commonly used were located in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and India. In many of those cities, many people are also “unbanked,” and digital payments have not yet become popular.

Payments companies including Visa benefit from the push toward a more cashless society and sometimes even offer businesses incentives to stop accepting cash. Visa in July announced it would give up to $10,000 to 50 U.S. restaurants and food vendors who stop accepting cash in favor of credit cards, debit cards and mobile payments.

Adam Wand, the group lead of public policy at Visa said the company wants consumers to have choices when they pay, which may still include cash.

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