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Even In Pandemic, German Consumers Reluctant To Abandon Using Cash


The pandemic has changed so much about our daily lives. In Germany, because of hygiene concerns, consumers are under pressure to abandon their habit of using cash for most transactions. As Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin, many are resisting.


ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Supermarkets like this one in Berlin are hushed, angst-ridden places these days where a controlled number of masked shoppers give each other a wide berth in the aisles. At the checkout, the cashier - also masked - sits behind a plastic screen and exchange with customers is kept to a minimum. Valerie Meyer pays for her groceries with coins and counts them out for the cashier. Outside, Meyer says she knows the supermarket installed a contactless payment terminal because of the pandemic, but she has no intention of using it.

VALERIE MEYER: (Through interpreter) I'm not in the slightest bit concerned about using cash right now. I touch other things in the supermarket, too, so why not use cash? I just keep washing my hands - simple.

NICHOLSON: The 41-year-old writer says she only uses plastic when forced to for booking flights or hotels. She adds that the coronavirus has actually brought her use of credit and debit cards to a complete halt.

MEYER: (Through interpreter) When I use a card, I have the feeling I've got an unlimited supply of money, and that's not the case. With cash, it's easier to see when you've overspent because it's gone.

NICHOLSON: Sixty-six-year-old Rainer Frodde comes out of the supermarket laden with tote bags and a coffee to go. He says he started using his debit card to pay for groceries for the first time in mid-March when Germany went into lockdown. He says he'd never really considered it previously.

RAINER FRODDE: (Through interpreter) Why have I always used cash? I'm really not sure, to be honest - tradition, I suppose. Yes, cash is a tradition.

NICHOLSON: Historian Robert Muschalla agrees.

ROBERT MUSCHALLA: (Through interpreter) When it comes to money, Germans prefer it to be real. They're suspicious of it's more abstract forms like stocks and shares. And they prefer to keep their assets in savings accounts. And so it comes to reason that they also prefer using cash to plastic.

NICHOLSON: While memories of Nazi and Communist surveillance means Germans don't like banks knowing how they spend their money, Muschalla says the preference for hard currency goes back to a financial crisis in 1873.

MUSCHALLA: (Through interpreter) Germans were so traumatized by it that they demonized all non-tangible forms of money. This hostility went hand in hand with the rising anti-Semitism of the day, which propagated an image of the greedy Jewish banker robbing people of their hard-earned cash.

NICHOLSON: Muschalla says saving for a rainy day is ingrained in the national psyche.

MUSCHALLA: (Through interpreter) When the middle class has lost their savings because of hyperinflation in the 1920s, counterintuitively, they went straight back to putting away their pennies again instead of investing in property or stocks.

NICHOLSON: Muschalla says it'll take more than a pandemic to see its demise of cash. Seventy-five percent of consumers still prefer to pay with real money. And while the coronavirus has prompted other nations to stockpile toilet paper, the Bundesbank says Germans have been stashing cash.


NICHOLSON: Back at the grocery store, Rainer Frodde admits he actually paid with cash today despite being a recent convert to plastic.

FRODDE: (Through interpreter) I had to use cash today because I forgot my card, and I couldn't have paid any other way.

NICHOLSON: For many Germans, Apple Pay is deemed too futuristic, and checks are considered so old-fashioned, they no longer exist. It seems neither is thought real enough to be trusted tender.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Esme Nicholson
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