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Mackenzie Jones in her jewellery studio in Calgary.TODD KOROL/the globe and mail

Cashless payments were already trending before the COVID-19 economy and now the pandemic has cemented consumers’ desire to tap and go.

“I prefer going cashless because I don’t travel with too much money lately,” explains Tracey Ho Lung, who lives in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood and actively supports local and small businesses.

“Blame it on COVID, but I haven’t been going to the bank to take out money, especially when everyone prefers to take debit or credit over cash. It’s convenient and my wallet is much lighter.”

Major leaps in payment processing technology can be credited for this sweeping transition that has made it easier for small businesses to thrive where cash is commonly king – at farmers’ markets, food trucks and neighbourhood pop-up events.

Ms. Jones works in her jewellery studio.TODD KOROL/the globe and mail

“In the beginning, people were apprehensive of tapping their card,” says Mackenzie Jones, a 34-year-old jewellery designer based in Calgary.

“In my demographic, they’re definitely keen on it. They can tap and go, even with their Apple watch. In that regard, I don’t think people miss cash – especially with COVID-19, a lot of people feel safer going cashless.”

Like so many independent artisans, Ms. Jones began her design startup as a side hustle to her full-time job. Then, in 2014, she took the leap into entrepreneurial life and launched her own brand. One of her first business solutions was the payment system Square. Launched in 2009 and the brainchild of Twitter boss Jack Dorsey, the name reflects the minimal square-shaped reader that plugs into a smartphone allowing for digital payments anywhere you can get a cell connection.

“What brought me to Square was its really user-friendly interface. It looked really clean, and it was $10 to start. For a small business just starting out, I didn’t want any carrying fees because I wasn’t always [attending] a market,” Ms. Jones explains. “That was really great for me, instead of going to a bank where I would have to be paying a rental fee for a point-of-sale device.”

Today it costs $59 to buy the device and it comes with a free app to manage and view payments. The low cost and easy set-up have encouraged small business owners to let go of loonies and go cashless, with few regrets.

Aya Wadi, co-owner of Royal Aleppo Food in Thunder Bay, Ont. Ms. Wadi started the business during the pandemic and serves up a Syrian menu to locals.handout

For Aya Wadi, the co-owner with her mother Duha Shaar of Royal Aleppo Food in Thunder Bay, Ont., Square’s processing fees are fair, too.

“Square has no monthly fee, and that really helped me when I opened my business during the pandemic last year,” says Ms. Wadi, whose company dishes up a Syrian menu for locals in her neighbourhood.

The rates are 2.65 per cent per in-person transaction and 2.9 per cent plus 30 cents per online transaction.

“I was happy to see that there were no other hidden fees,” she adds.

Ms. Jones continues to rely on Square because it has evolved from a payment processor to a provider with full point-of-sale (POS) devices and solutions.

“They have honestly done such a good job of growing with my business. It almost seems like they’re anticipating features,” she says. “The first thing I started to use outside of the reader was employee tracking to help with payroll. As I was ready to move to the next level with [tracking and paying] employee commissions, they were right there with me.”

Since debuting in Canada nine years ago, Square has witnessed an uplift of 70 per cent among their seller base each year through to 2020.

“We’ve seen from business owners that beyond payments, the whole proposition of running a business can be expensive, complicated, and time and labour-intensive. We wanted to address all these pain-points and give sellers all the tools they need to start, run, grow or adapt their businesses,” explains Karisa Marra, Square’s small business expert.

Actively supportive of entrepreneurs, Square is a partner with Digital Main Street, a federal and provincial government program that assists small businesses with launching and growing their online sales.

They’re not alone in their mission to assist entrepreneurs as the gig economy evolves and requires support for everything from payment processing to inventory control and employee shift management.

“At Clover, we’re taking all those tools and presenting them as a one-stop shop,” says Brian Green, country head for Canada at Fiserv, parent company of Clover, a payment and point of sale solution similar to Square. “That’s a big advancement for small business operators who really want to focus on their trade and serving their customers.”

The Clover Flex is a sleek device designed to be as intuitive as a smartphone. Mr. Green says the company’s onboarding and concierge services sets them apart.

“Let’s say you’re on the road and you’re having a problem with something. There’s a button on our device that says ‘Call Me.’ Just press it and within seconds, our customer service person is going to call you back.”

The company’s most recent 12-month annualized growth rate is over 50 per cent; that success coincides with the launch of a new restaurant POS system which includes online ordering, contactless payments and real-time reporting.

Frank Mazzonetto is the chef and owner of Ombretta Cucina + Vino in Mississauga, Ont. He’s a Clover supporter thanks to being part of a pilot project during which he received the hardware at no cost, along with a training program.

“The Clover Flex units have the capability to take payments, but also orders right at the table; there’s no more pen and pad for the wait staff. It eliminates one extra step so they can provide better service,” he adds.

Clover posts no startup costs, the hardware and terminal rental is $30 per month, and LTE wireless service is 50 cents a day (and merchants can turn that function on, as required). It includes a free Clover Mobile app that processes payments on-the-go when a terminal isn’t handy, along with an online dashboard featuring real-time reporting and data.

Where they differ from Square is in their transaction costs.

“Payment processing is priced to reflect the merchant’s unique transaction mix,” explains Mr. Green. “We do not apply one fixed rate to all merchants regardless of their profile, as we find that this is of particularly high cost to merchants.”

Mr. Mazzonetto says the price to maintain his service is competitive.

However, the restaurant owner admits that sometimes cash still has a role to play, especially when it comes to keeping his staff happy.

“It allows my service staff to have their tips in their pocket instantly. It’s always appreciated by them to have that.”

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