How Technology Paves the Way For New Norms

Technology has a way of shifting our expectations around things we take for granted, big or small. Recent moves around payment cards—including stores that are going cashless—show just how quickly norms can get pushed out of the way. It’s a lesson association pros could gain a lot from.

Of the many topics I’ve covered for Associations Now over the years, one that’s most likely to appear at least every couple of months is something related to credit cards.

There are a lot of reasons for this—credit cards cover a hard-to-miss overlap of technology and commerce. This overlap makes them controversial at times—mention the word “swipe fees,” as we did in a 2013 cover story, and you might catch wind of one of the largest and longest-running legal and regulatory conflicts of the modern era—and it also has a way of shaping the challenges many trade groups face. Retail and e-commerce firms are likely to worry about security issues with these devices; technology and financial firms might worry about keeping standards both manageable and up-to-date.

Outside of the smartphone, the payment card is the most important piece of technology the average person owns. And for understandable reasons, it’s changing with the times.

Recently, I wrote about the decision by the card companies to stop requiring signatures, and last week, Slate reported on a decision by many credit card companies to stop issuing cards with a mainstay of the format—the number, located on the front of the card, with embossed letters that look like they were pulled out of an issue of BYTE Magazine. Instead, the card is likely to leave the number on the back.

There are two reasons why card companies are doing this: One, modern card readers no longer require the numbers be readable on the front of the card because nearly all cards nowadays include microchips that encrypt the customer’s data; two, the embossed numbers are ugly and the cards simply look better without the numbers.

Speaking to the news outlet, analyst Matt Schulz said that the move reflects the fact that appearances do matter.

“Issuers are going to experiment with design as long as there is a physical credit card to be had,” Schulz explained. “The truth is, people do care how their card looks. If they see one of their friends or family members take out a card that is really interesting, it can catch people’s attention in a way that a boring, standard card can’t.”

The spirit behind this phenomenon is also visible in the recent trend by some fast food places to require payment by cards instead of cash. Since I first mentioned the trend in the waning weeks of 2016, the idea has picked up steam at a lot of restaurants.

Going cashless has proven a bit more mixed on the success front for retail establishments, however, as the move sometimes leaves out customers who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. In some eyes, it can even be seen as a consumer-hostile move.

But for those businesses that do choose to stick with it, it creates perks in the form of no longer having to pay for bank fees, armored vehicles, or many of the other costs that are otherwise a fact of life when it comes to retail. It also boosts security—the analog kind—because it’s harder to get robbed and it makes it significantly harder for a customer to pass a counterfeit bill. And, as cash tends to be slower to use than cards, it also improves customer service by making things just a little bit faster.

“I made the decision to put my customers’ and my employees’ safety as my No. 1 priority,” Epic Burger owner David Friedman said of his decision in USA Today, noting that he made the move despite receiving numerous complaints and seeing a light dip in sales.

Technology Opens New Doors

The recent evolution of the payment card and how it’s used speaks to an important point to me that I think associations should consider when it comes to their technology endeavors: Eventually, tech will create an opportunity to open new doors that weren’t previously available to your organization.

It will allow opportunities to do the small things better, more efficiently, and perhaps even with a better sense of flair. Clearly, handing out credit cards without those ugly numbers on the front isn’t going to change the world, but it might slightly improve the customer experience by making the number more discreet and could even prove to be a marketing win.

Ultimately, the idea of restaurants ditching cash is way larger on the scale of big changes compared to what the front of the credit card says. But the significance of the debate is that, if it works, it’s a big win for those companies.

We could go around for weeks debating whether restaurants going cashless is a good thing for our society, but the fact of the matter is, this wasn’t even an option for many businesses five years ago. Yes, it’s controversial and probably will be for years to come; yes, there are a lot of benefits to it that go beyond customer service, and that discussion will only continue in the years to come.

This situation reminds me of the ongoing debates we’ve had in the association world about dropping paper at events in favor of PDFs and apps. Not everyone will want to ditch paper entirely. But some might, and they wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.

Likewise, tech has made it possible for associations to touch some of their audiences multiple times a day, which is very much a great power that also comes with great responsibility. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

New technology opens doors for discussions you wouldn’t have been able to have previously—whether those things are big or small. It’s your job to decide whether or not those doors should open.

Credit cards are increasingly coming without numbers embossed on the front. (manusapon kasosod/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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