Could coronavirus end the Swiss love affair with cash?

Could coronavirus end the Swiss love affair with cash?
Photo: DPA
Worries about the spread of the coronavirus has seen many businesses in Switzerland switch to being ‘card only’. Could this be the mark of something permanent?

“You don’t know where it’s been” is the common refrain from parents everywhere to scare their kids out of putting coins in their mouths. But up until recently, most of us would ignore the same advice when it came to cash. 

When paying with card, it would come down more to a question of convenience than fears about infection. 

UPDATE: What you need to know about the coronavirus crisis in Switzerland

Across Switzerland, for a temporary period at least, the coronavirus has changed this – with card payment preferred in many stores and sometimes being the only option. 

Cash banned in some stores, discouraged in others

While Switzerland has a strong and enduring love for cash, as reported in the Swiss news outlet Le Temps, hygiene concerns relating to the coronavirus could permanently change this.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressly said card payments – particularly contactless card payments – should be encouraged as a means of halting the spread of the virus. 

Swiss smartphone payment system Twint has seen a 50 percent increase in use since mid-March.

Twint, which is used to make payments as well as to transfer money electronically between members of the public, is now being accepted by more and more businesses. 

Swiss daily 20 Minutes reported that several shops in the capital of Bern have asked customers to “pay with card for health reasons”, while the Zurich association for small-to-medium enterprises has said its members have seen significant increases in popularity of card payments. 

Authorities in China took the drastic step of disinfecting cash in order to halt the spread of the virus. 

Contactless payment is growing in popularity in Switzerland. Image: DPA

Cash still king in Switzerland

The use of cash in Switzerland is still widespread, particularly with regard to other similar countries. 

A 2017 study showed that 70 percent of transactions in Switzerland are carried out in cash. The study also found that a Swiss person is likely to have an average of CHF133 (125€) in their wallet at any time. 

The Swiss also love the country’s higher denomination bills. In total, 40 percent of those in the survey indicated they had at least one CHF1000 note (944€) – and two-thirds had at least one CHF200 (189€) note. 

Jonathan Rea, CEO of Foinder, a Swiss-based business consultancy, told the BBC that Switzerland’s preference for cash comes from privacy concerns, with many customers preferring the anonymity of cash. 

The lack of demand for card payments can also be self-perpetuating, as fewer businesses are incentivised to put in place card payment systems – or adopt newer payment methods like payment apps. 

This stands in opposition with smaller European countries, particularly smaller countries with unique currencies like those in Scandinavia, who have made a significant shift to electronic payments. 

Cash is dead. Long live the king?

The enduring popularity of cash in Switzerland is odd when looking at many of the other characteristics of the country. 

Switzerland certainly has no aversion to technology and the country’s unique currency means using cash can be less accessible for tourists or travellers. 

At this stage, it is difficult to determine whether the switch away from cash is purely temporary – or whether it will be permanent. 

Professor at the IFZ Institute of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences, Andreas Dietrich, told Le Temps that even if the current crisis may not mean the immediate end of cash in Switzerland, it could make a marked difference to the use of cash in five years time. 

“The current crisis could significantly change consumer behaviour. Already because they are forced to – you don't change ‘just like that’- and they could realise how practical and quick it is.”

 


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