“You know that we are living in a material world …” sang Madonna all that time ago in her 1985-hit Material Girl. And people’s predilection for material goods seems undiminished, even in this digital society. In the German-speaking world in particular, cash is still king.

And Austria can claim the title of the number one cash nation. A recent study revealed that just one in ten Austrians can imagine a cash-free future. In no other country is opposition to purely electronic payment so high. And in the supposedly digitally-savvy 18-34 age bracket, only 17% said that they would do just fine without their euro notes compared with the EU average of 22%. They prefer paying in cash to using digital payment platforms. But the question is: how long will this continue? The situation in Austria is unimaginable for Sweden. This Scandinavian nation has emerged as the cash-free pioneer of our age. More and more stores, restaurant and filling stations are displaying signs declaring that they no longer accept cash. Hundreds of bank branches no longer issue coins or notes. And in a sign of the times, many churches have a “Kollektomat” – a collection plate with a card-reader.

The appeal of digital, cash-free shopping is unstoppable and will have an increasing impact on our lifestyles. The Future Commerce – Handel 2025 study published by the Austrian Retail Association showed that two thirds of internet users shopped online at least once a month. And 60% of millennials (aged 14-29) use their smartphones to shop online. Retail, a sector which is heavily affected by increasing digitalisation, is experiencing a distinct shift in behaviour.

The new digital reality: smartphones as multifunctional devices

There are lots of smartphone payment solutions out there. Apple Pay, Pay Pal and Swish: digital wallets are the latest must-have. In fact, Apple Pay already works at two out of three point of sales terminals. Paying via finger scan is also gaining a growing foothold. And anyone that wants to make transactions even less complicated can simply use their Apple Watch. Soon enough traditional wallets will be collector’s items for hipsters.

There are also lots of ways for people to do their bit for society in this new digital environment. The Swish app lets users make regular donations or transfer money to their friends when splitting the bill in a restaurant. Building societies and banks, start-ups and retailers are all falling over themselves to bring out their own proprietary solutions. It seems like everyone is looking for a piece of the contactless pie right now.

Personalised checkout experiences that can be managed via computers, tablets and mobile phones are now an integral part of the retail experience. Check out systems that work with every card reader device or can be linked with existing online stores will be an important tool in future for any retailer looking to respond more rapidly and flexibly to their customers’ needs. A hush will fall over the traditional cash registers. At the hipster café around the corner or the latest neighbourhood pop-up store this has already been reality for some time now: instead of using old-school cash registers, payments are simply processed via a small wireless device. These mobile digital terminals also have the potential to appeal to more eco-minded generations thanks to functionality that makes it possible to send receipts directly to the customer’s smartphone via e-mail, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook or other messaging services. All those annoying bits of paper are consigned to the dustbin of history, and users of the system can also ease their eco-conscience.

The advantages for retailers are twofold: one Nielsen study showed that customers spent more money when they were given the option of paying without cash. And irritating queues could also soon be a thing of the past. Wouldn’t that be something!