More performance venues going cashless for concessions


The pandemic spurred many professional sports stadiums and the state Thruway to stop accepting cash, but Capital Region performance venues are slower to completely abandon U.S. currency at their concession stands.

While many may at first consider card-only payment to be natural progress, a matter of convenience and obviously more secure for a facility than having piles of cash on hand, the change is being resisted on a variety of fronts. Among the opponents are those concerned about data privacy and others who see it as further social marginalization of the economically disadvantaged.   

The promoter Live Nation requires cashless payments for concession sales for concerts it presents at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, but those same concession stands accept cash during SPAC-sponsored events including its jazz, ballet and classical performances. (Live Nation patrons may use a reverse ATM to load cash on a debit card dispensed by the machine.)

While MVP Arena in Albany took cash at a few of its concessions, all have recently transitioned to only electronic payment, according to an arena spokeswoman.

At the main Proctors complex in Schenectady, the Apostrophe cafe, next to the box office, takes cash, but the remaining concession stands do not, according to CEO Philip Morris. Concessions at its affiliates, Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany and Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, are officially cashless, but, “We won’t refuse anyone” who insists on paying with currency, Morris said.

Most other performance venues locally that accept cash and electronic payment for concessions report that upward of 70 percent of concession sales are not with cash. The exception is Cohoes Music Hall in Cohoes, with a stand in the lobby and another at the back of the theater. Its performance calendar this fall is heavy with shows by rock tribute acts, and those audiences still predominantly pay in cash, said Owen Smith, producing artistic director of Playhouse Stage Company, which has the contract to manage the city-owned venue.

More than two-thirds of sales at the eight concessions in Albany’s Palace Theatre are electronic, but the facility won’t go cashless anytime soon, said spokesman Sean Allen via email, adding, “While card transactions increase year after year, a large enough (percentage) of our patrons pay in cash (that) we want to make sure to accommodate all of our patrons as best as we can.”

A common misconception is that businesses are required to accept payment in cash, a belief perpetuated by a misunderstanding of the sentence on U.S. paper money that says, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

According to the Federal Reserve, however, a purchase is not a debt, which refers to a financial obligation to a creditor. Therefore, a statement on the agency’s website says, “There is no federal statute mandating that a private business, a person, or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether to accept cash.”

For a venue, card and smartphone payments incur fees from processing companies, but their advantages are many, including faster transactions most of the time, less opportunity for employee theft and not having to secure large amounts of currency after an event. Further, according to the credit-card company Visa, patrons at sports and performance venues spend 25 percent more when using cards than those carrying cash.

“From an (operator’s) point of view, cash is a dangerous entity,” said Jim Pettit of Troy-based Old Daley Catering, which contracts to manage concessions at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and Troy and The Egg in Albany. While card sales predominate, enough patrons pay with cash, especially at shows attracting older crowds, that the two venues’ concessions will continue to accept it for the foreseeable future, Pettit said.

Professional sports venues switched to cashless transactions much more completely and quickly. Tropicana Field in Florida, where the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball, was the first pro stadium to refuse cash, making the announcement in January 2019. Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of the Falcons football team, followed two months later, and by this fall, all 30 NFL venues and 29 of 30 Major League Baseball stadiums were cashless. (The lone holdout is baseball’s Progressive Field in Ohio, where Cleveland Guardians fans are strongly encouraged but not required to pay electronically.)

In restaurants, 84 percent of checks are settled with credit or debit cards, according to the analytics company PYMNTS. The local performance venues that are still taking cash for a quarter to a third of their concession sales do not see that ratio at the box office, where virtually all tickets are sold online or over the phone. At Proctors, for example, just 3 percent of tickets are purchased in person with cash, the theater’s CEO said. And the 570-mile state Thruway went to a cashless toll system in November 2020.

The seemingly inexorable march toward a largely cashless society is being resisted on multiple fronts. Privacy advocates say that every additional digital transaction may increase the likelihood of personal information being available to be stolen by hackers. Those who work to support what is called the unbanked community — often including the homeless, undocumented immigrants, itinerant laborers and other economically marginalized populations including some young and some elderly —  say cashless transactions further exclude them from participating in society.

The Federal Reserve website’s discussion of cash payments notes that while there is no national law requiring acceptance of currency, state or local laws may do so. Massachusetts law has mandated that companies selling to the public accept cash since 1978. New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco passed similar laws in 2019. When New York City enacted a comparable measure the following year, its lead sponsor, Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, told The New York Times, “We are reining in the excesses of the digital economy.”

Further, Torres said, “I worry about the real-world discriminatory effect that cashless business can have on New Yorkers, especially in communities of color.”

Even those who prefer cash accept that its days and uses are dwindling.

Ted Etoll, a concert promoter who runs the Empire Live venue in downtown Albany, with separate spaces for crowds of 400 and up to 1,000, said 75 percent of his bar sales are cashless, higher for bands that attract younger-skewing crowds. He expects the overall figure to continue to rise as a generation raised on electronic purchases sees less and less currency in currency.

“Young people never even pull a nickel out of their pockets these days,” said Etoll. “Old-timers like me wouldn’t leave the house without $300 on us,  but who does that anymore? Like, nobody.”

For now, at least, Empire Live will continue to accept cash, even welcome it, Etoll said.

“We may consider (going cashless) at some point down the road,” he said. “But we’re not in a position to turn down anybody’s dollars, however they want to give it to us.” 








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