The Cashless Starbucks: Reality or Wishful Thinking?

Considering how simple their offerings are, coffee shops and upmarket cafés attract a lot of confusion for doing things slightly differently to the rest of the hospitality industry.

If they’re not serving cappuccino in an Erlenmeyer flask, they’re charging a fiver for the standard cup of Joe.

As an industry that pumps and froths around £8bn into the UK economy every year though, from more than 20,000 outlets they’re welcome to stay as long as they like.

After all, we all love coffee.

Apple Pay

Somewhere along the way, coffee shops gained an association with millennials and the hyper-modern. The proliferation of Wi-Fi internet in Starbucks and Costa Coffee is an obvious lure for young people and their laptops (or typewriters, as the case may be) but the industry as a whole has a fondness for technology, especially with regard to payment methods.

And it goes much further than letting customers use contactless cards.

Mobile wallets, largely the domain of Apple, Samsung, Google, and PayPal, have gained an audience in the UK following launches in the latter half of the decade.

Acceptance in big brand coffee shops is still spotty in 2017 (Starbucks only allows payments through the service on its official app for example) but that’s perhaps testament to the youth of the technology rather than a refusal to adopt it.

Starbucks has been contactless since 2013.


Recently, another cashless payment method – Bitcoin – has been brewing up a name for itself in London’s cafés and delicatessens.

For example, Nin Com Soup in the Old Street Tube Station, Newham’s Sawmill Cafe and Bakery, and The Old Shoreditch Station on Kingsland Road all accept Bitcoin for food and drink. Mainstream adoption has been tough for the currency but it’s far from a newcomer to the world of digital payments.

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Earning the favour of iGaming companies like Vegas Casino from 2009 onwards, a year after its inception in a niche mailing list, Bitcoin is a decentralised “cryptocurrency” with no physical token; in other words, it’s digital money.

There’s more to Bitcoin support that rapport with the hipsters though. Vegas Casino can provide provably fair odds due to integration with the “blockchain”, the database system behind the currency. The Bitcoin-only online casino brand also carries the coffee shop-friendly slot machine Macarons.


Bitcoin integration at Starbucks is rather more of an embryonic thing with parallels in its support for Apple Pay.

Using the iPayYou digital wallet, customers can transfer Bitcoin to the Starbucks app and use their funds to buy Marmite and cheese paninis at outlets through the United States.

It seems to fall slightly short of full support for the cryptocurrency given that an exchange to dollars takes place during the process: Starbucks doesn’t receive any Bitcoins.

But it’s definitely a step forward.

Finally, to answer the question in the title: As we explained, no, the cashless Starbucks isn’t wishful thinking but it’s not quite reality in the UK yet either.

The long-promised demise of cash will split the payments arena into fragments, with customers using PayPal, Bitcoin, and Apple Pay all searching for support in their favourite stores.

That splintering arguably comes at the cost of much slower adoption of cashless payments, simply because a store that doesn’t accept all ten (for example) different variations on the technology will have to continue using cash to serve the customers it lets down in that regard.

Featured image courtesy of Adrianna Calvo, with thanks.

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