Walk into any of today’s fast-casual restaurants — places with negligible service where you order at a counter, pick it up yourself, bus your own table, and even sort the garbage — and you’ll probably see Square. Known as a point of sale (POS) device, it looks like a white tablet computer, swivels around to face the customer as necessary, and dominates the counter.
It’s a product of Square, Inc., a publicly traded company based in San Francisco with a $24 billion valuation, and they’re spreading like wildfire — replacing traditional cash registers and a host of other seemingly obsolete payment schemes. On the surface, it makes sense: What’s wrong with a system that streamlines and standardizes the whole payment process and automatically provides an accounting?
First, of course, there’s the obvious problem that 78 percent of Americans have credit cards, meaning that 22 percent don’t. Not everyone has debit cards either, meaning a portion of people can’t buy food at cashless establishments. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects people of color and others disadvantaged by social class and other factors, as mentioned in an Eater piece earlier this year.
But I have my own reasons to be annoyed. As a person who often pays for meals in cash for the purposes of anonymity, I quickly discovered that many places using Square were incapable of taking cash or printing receipts. Doesn’t it say “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private” on every piece of American currency?
Beyond that, Square knows where you go and how you spend your money. To the average credit card swiper grabbing a coffee, it’s not entirely clear how this information will be used. To the restaurants, Square advertises that the company helps “personalize” each transaction — and presumably, help restaurants engineer menus.
Initially, this seems reasonable enough; of course, I want local businesses to succeed. But in the long run though, it could lead to restaurants discarding less popular choices and generally making menus less quirky and eating less interesting. I could easily see this extra data meaning more and more of the generic bowl-focused restaurants that already plague NYC. It would doubtlessly mean more kale.
Privacy is another matter. Now that Square has my info, presumably collected the first time I swiped my credit card in a cashless establishment, it peppers me with emails. (The Square website notes that it shares information with a whole litany of places, including corporate affiliates, other companies that use Square, and “third parties that run advertising campaigns, contests, special offers” and other entities.) I get an email receipt every time I make a purchase, whether I want it or not. I shudder to think how many receipts pile up in the mailboxes of those who purchase every cup of coffee and candy bar with a credit card.
Other emails roll in, too. I routinely get ones asking how I liked the service at the establishments I patronized, and worst of all, get spammed by many of these same places, who have the option when using the Square of contacting customers directly for any reason they choose. One cashless coffee bar automatically sends me updates every week on how their hours will be changing.
There are further annoyances and ethical dilemmas introduced by these devices. Many demand outlandish tips for what seems like minimal service, in contexts where we previously probably wouldn’t have tipped more than a fistful of change. Everyone is familiar with the tablet being swung around to confront you with tipping boxes that ask for a 15 percent, 20 percent, or 25 percent tip, as the counter person looks on.
Yes, you can hit a button that says Custom Tip, but does this make you a mean-spirited cheapskate? And do the counter attendants know exactly how much you’ve tipped? Because really, what we’re being asked to do by these devices is pre-tip, delivering a gratuity before the service is even rendered.
Much has been written about how the tipping economy is racist and misogynistic, denying waiters a living wage and creating all sorts of inequalities among restaurant workers. The solution seems to be that we need to build a fair wage for employees into the menu prices. Well and good. But don’t these POS devices extend the archaic tipping system to a whole new army of workers? By telling the consumers that we must subsidize the workforce at coffee bars, snack shops, delis, and what are essentially fast food joints we glamorize by calling them “fast casual,” an unfair tipping system is being further universalized.
All this shows no sign of stopping. Square is said to now be in use by two million businesses globally, and Square, Inc. projects a gross payment volume of $409 billion by 2026, according to the Washington Post.
Like Big Brother in 1984, Square already knows what your spending habits are and how to help businesses induce you to spend further. It’s a nightmare that will surely lead to duller dining scene and further deepen the socioeconomic divides already in place.