Cost of living drives return to cash, says BRC

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has published its BRC Payments Survey 2023, showing a return to cash for transactions, rising for the first time in a decade.

UK retail sales rose 4.3% to £439.5bn in 2022, although this was largely due to rising prices resulting from increased costs throughout the supply chain. The number of transactions rose from 17.2bn in 2021 (47.2m per day) to 19.6bn in 2022 (53.7m per day).

Average Transaction Value fell from £24.49 to £22.43, as consumers shopped around more and made more regular, but smaller, purchases. This reverses a trend seen during the pandemic, towards less frequent, bigger, shopping trips – as people tried to avoid going out as often.

By Transactions

Cash usage grew for the first time in a decade, rising to 19% of all transactions (from 15% in 2021). This reflects a choice by many households to use cash to budget more carefully during the onset of the cost of living crisis, as well as a natural return to cash usage following the move to contactless during Covid. Card payments were used for 76% of transactions (83% in 2021), with debit cards accounting for four-fifths of these transactions. 

By Spending

Cards accounted for the overwhelming proportion (85%) of money spent, with debit cards taking three-quarters of this spending. They are used more often than credit cards but for smaller value transactions. Meanwhile, cash increased to 11% of consumer spend (8% in 2021).

The increase in cash usage – both by spend and transaction numbers – is welcome. BRC members are committed to accepting cash payments, supporting vulnerable groups and those using cash to budget. Government should ensure that cash acceptance is a viable option for merchants and customers across the whole ecosystem.

The dominance of card payments has come at a significant cost to retailers. Retailers spent £1.26 billion on card processing fees; this includes a 27% increase in scheme fees and a 7% increase in interchange fees (as percentages of turnover) in 2022.

Alternative payment methods saw a rise in popularity in 2022, from 2.0% to 4.9% of transactions. Methods such as Open Banking and Buy-Now Pay-Later (BNPL) are starting to offer some competition to card payments.

The BRC is calling for the following actions to reduce costs for hard-pressed retailers:

  • Reforms in the payment market: The Payment Systems Regulator must implement meaningful reforms to increase competition and reduce costs in the payment market.
  • Treasury Review: We call on the Treasury to conduct a full review of interchange fees to examine if they are fit for purpose in the UK market.
  • Open banking: We want to see the growth of Open Banking in the UK, without replicating the existing card system.

Hannah Regan, Payments Policy Advisor, British Retail Consortium said: “We are now seeing a return to many of the pre-pandemic trends in payments, including smaller but more frequent purchases, and a slight return of cash payments. Unfortunately, what has not changed, is the ever-increasing scale of fees paid by retailers in order to accept card payments. Though alternative payment methods could provide much needed competition to the market, the dominance of card payments means it is essential that action is taken to prevent fees rising further.” 

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