Chicago has a posh downtown mall called Water Tower Place, and on the ground floor is a cafeteria of sorts called Foodlife. It's a unique concept: instead of paying at the beginning, like most cafeterias, you get a plastic "Foodcard." As you order dishes at the various kiosks, each attendant swipes your card. Then, you eat. You don't even open your wallet until the end, when you tally up your total and pay.
This interaction is liberating because you don't have to think about money. You just hand the guy your card and voila - dinner. It's fun! I bet people love Foodlife because it's a stress-free place. Low commitment. But I think that the concept of a Foodcard - or any currency-free zone - could get a little risky.
I've been to the Taste of Chicago, and I've been to Dave & Buster's, and both do something similar. They make you pay up front in order to use their alternative currency.
At the Taste, you get tickets. You buy a bunch of them, but then it's so confusing to keep mentally converting tickets into dollars when each ticket is like $1.75 that you just say "Okay fine! I'll buy the lobster roll for 9 tickets!" And you end up spending waaaaay more than you would if you knew the lobster roll was actually $15.75. It's the same at D&B - if you want to play video games, you put money on a Power Card and never look back.
I think that the concept of a currency-free zone is a little scary because it takes advantage of people. They subconsciously think, "I am not spending any money right now, because I do not see any cash leaving my hands." Then they buy more. It's like any credit card or bank loan, but on a micro level. Very easy to abuse.
When places make spending money fun like this, people will spend more. And don't get me wrong - I think there's a huge opportunity here to make spending fun. Convert your dollars into stickers or punchcards or stamps or toys, and spend away! It's not money, it's just chips at a casino! It's not really dollars, just a fun plastic card!
But as consumers, we're going to have to control ourselves when using alternative currency. We can't let Foodlife lure us into getting dessert every time. Because even when it's all dressed up, it's still our hard-earned dough.