Grab and Go Shopping

Philadelphia’s new law banning cashless businesses does provide exemptions for retailers such as Amazon, whose Amazon Go stores operate in Seattle.

— AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

No credit? No problem.

Mayor Jim Kenney enacted legislation this week that bans retail shops and restaurants from going cashless.

The mayor put his signature on a bill that City Council passed in mid-February in a 12-4 vote, a margin that could have overcome a veto.

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Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Kenney, said in an email Thursday that the the bill was signed despite reservations the ban could stifle innovation in the retail sector.

Noting Philadelphia’s nation-leading 26 percent poverty rate for a city with 1 million or more residents, Dunn said the administration wanted to ensure equal opportunities to amenities and businesses for those without access to banking services — often referred to as the “unbanked.”

“Until we can resolve the hurdles facing the unbanked,” he said, “we need to remove any obstacles that could prevent them from enjoying all amenities of this city — amenities that are readily available to those fortunate enough to have a debit or credit card.”

Councilman William Greenlee, who co-sponsored the measure with Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, said the few cashless businesses in the city would have to start taking greenbacks starting July 1, when the law takes effect.

“How complicated could that be?” Greenlee asked. “It’s something that businesses have been doing for centuries.”

The law amends the Philadelphia Code under the Fair Practices Ordinance. Violators could face a maximum $2,000 fine.

Only a handful of local businesses are cash-free, including the salad-centric fast-food eatery Sweetgreen and the Australian-inspired coffee shop Bluestone Lane.

Sweetgreen and Bluestone Lane, which both have locations in Center City, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The online retail company Amazon reportedly contacted the city’s Commerce Department leading up to the passage of the bill and raised concerns that the legislation would preclude its cashless Amazon Go stores from opening in Philadelphia.

However, Greenlee maintained the legislation carves out exceptions for some businesses such as Amazon.

“We’re not trying to keep anybody out,” he said, “But by the same token, I don’t think Amazon or anybody else should dictate what our policies are here.”

Among those exempted are parking lots and garages as well as transactions at retail stores “selling consumer goods exclusively through a membership model that requires payment by means of an affiliated mobile device application.”

Critics of cashless businesses say the practice inordinately affects low-income customers, minorities and immigrants who often lack access to traditional banking services. Advocates counter that the ban will curb business investment and drive companies out of the city.

No federal law requires private businesses to accept cash. The federal government leaves that up to individual businesses and the states.

A 1984 state law, known as the Cash Consumer Protection Act, is already on the books to prevent businesses from going totally cashless.

However, Greenlee says the city’s ordinance is necessary because it explicitly mandates that businesses accept cash, unlike the state law.

Massachusetts is the only state to outlaw discrimination against cash users. New Jersey could be next, as legislation to ban cashless businesses in the Garden State awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature or veto. (215) 893-5782

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