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Friday, October 9, 2009

Cash on the Barrelhead in a Leapfrogged Parallel Universe

Today’s tale is regarding the payment of rent. So let us begin by imagining that we are at a Woolworth’s store.

But let me stop here to clarify: not a Woolworth’s like you might remember from your youth; not the Woolworth’s with lunch counters that hosted part of the American civil rights movement; not the one Nanci Griffith described nostalgically in preface to her song Love at the Five and Dime: “Woolworth stores are the same everywhere in the world. They have this wonderful smell to ‘em, they smell like popcorn and chewing gum rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe. The first time we went to Europe… we were driving through central London - we came around a corner and by golly, there was a Woolworth’s store! And I wanted them to stop the car and let me out so I could go fill up my suitcase with unnecessary plastic objects!”

The original Woolworth’s died an interesting death, turns out;
they were basically a victim of their own success. (Most of this comes from Wiki, so grain of salt, please.) F. W. Woolworth had worked in dry goods back in the late 19th century, and had the bright idea to let people wander around aisles of crap, free to buy unnecessary plastic objects on impulse instead of having to take a list to a counter where a bunch of crotchety stock boys would run around fetching their items. This inspiration rated nearly 100 years of success. As late as 1979 it was the world’s biggest store of its kind, handily fighting off your Ventures and Zayres and what not, but that didn’t save their basic business model from becoming outdated in the US; when Wal*Mart and Target (both of which opened in 1962) started selling the same stuff in bigger stores, and with cheaper, more focused product lines, Woolworth’s didn't change their own set-up, but tried to belatedly diversify into all kinds of other subsidiary market areas. For a while it labored on as a many-headed beast, but proved too cumbersome ultimately: then its business groups were splintered off for sale, with some classic Woolworth’s stores changing to local ownership and surviving for a time in Canada and the UK (until earlier this year) and Mexico and Germany (still operating). The sole worthwhile part of the original Woolworth’s empire is, curiously enough, Foot Locker, which is itself a leftover of Kinney, a legacy of some bright young thing’s notion to diversify into footwear in the 60s.

No, the Woolworth’s of South Africa is a clean, health-conscious, up-market grocery store, whose founders cleverly (without permission, but legally) swiped the name from the original five-and-dime behemoth in 1932, long before it began to flounder beneath the weight of the world’s combined supply of Targets and Kohls. Someone else did the same thing in Australia in 1924 – different chain, same name. This is what happens when corporations do not copyright (EDIT: trademark, not copyright - thanks, E!) their intellectual property in every country. It also demonstrates the marketing power of a recognizable name, because as soon as I started seeing Woolworth’s around Cape Town, I felt like it was someplace I knew – overcome by the same popcorn-tinged whiff of nostalgia that surprised Nanci Griffith in central London. Though I realized that mine was misplaced as soon as I set foot inside, this did not prevent me from shopping there, and immediately becoming addicted to these little ginger ales.

So I am standing in line at this ersatz-Woolworth’s, contemplating the time-warp of its existence – if it hadn’t swiped the name during the long zenith of the original chain’s success, it would not have been able to harness such world-wide name recognition to become a big national chain here….but at the same time, it ended up being successful in a future that the original Woolworth’s never got to see. It’s like time split in 1979, and in our world all the Woolworth’s dried up like the Precambrian Ocean; but in a parallel world, they thrived by adapting themselves into grocery stores, like the consumer goods version of mammals walking up from the sea.

Imagine, then, that I am at a Woolworth’s store, and, distracted by these deep thoughts, I shuffle up with my basket to pay, only to have my debit card declined. What? What? WHAT? Sorry, I’ve been standing over there in 1979. You say the plasticky thing that holds all my money isn’t working? Well, fuck.

Aside: I am a BIG fan of direct deposit, electronic billing, auto-pay, Paypal, wire transfers, you name it – anything that takes me out of the equation. In fact, the only reason all my bills get paid on time and correctly (which was not necessarily the case in my youth) is because I have nothing to do with the process. My work tells my bank how much money I get; my creditors ask my bank for money; my bank responds to my creditors right on time, and I just receive a disposable allowance that I can spend with impunity, tra la la, on Bass Ale and cinnamon Pop-Tarts, and for such items I mainly use a debit card. Cash? What cash? I laugh at cash – ha ha! And even if I must use cash, it is readily available from thousands, nay millions of ATMs worldwide, including those in this admittedly cosmopolitan city in this allegedly third-world country (though scams are prevelent and security is, of course dodgy - I had to have a gentleman from my hotel accompany me to collect money from an outdoor one, since it was - gasp! - nearing 5:00 pm). In these Modern Times, (speaking strictly in terms of accessing money you already have, not scraping up credit, which is a different matter), one can pretty much blink and snap one’s ponytail, Barbara Eden-styley, and before one can say Step Away From The Harem Pants, Jeannie, money is transferred from the one who has it – blink! – to the one who needs it. Magical!

But here in the parallel universe of Cape Town, South Africa, some things have developed a little differently than in our world, and my foreign debit and credit cards have a very hit or miss record so far in the week I’ve been here. Card machines are notoriously unreliable. Some stores have to swipe a few times before it “takes”; some do not make this effort, and declare me credit-less after only one try. In that case, I resort to the cash I have on hand with apologetic head-bobbing and smiles, but all along I know this is not a problem with MY CARD, but with YOUR PARALLEL WORLD. Because where I come from, if a store says it takes Mastercard, and the Mastercard in question is attached to a checking account that still has money in it, and the magnetic strip is not wonky, then Mastercard IS money.

Part of the problem is, of course, that South Africa’s first world veneer is awfully thin in some places, and at times is downright skin deep, a sop to tourists who like to pretend things are just as they are at home. But the fact that a store says it takes Mastercard does not mean it will take your Mastercard. The fact that your hotel claims it has wi-fi does not mean wi-fi will reach from the lobby to your room on the second floor. The fact that you can buy cinnamon Pop-Tarts in a store called Woolworth’s does not mean you can walk down the street by your school during the day without trepidation.

Which brings me to this week’s puzzle: paying rent. I owe Steve and I can’t pay him with an in-country check, because as a foreigner with no income here I can’t open a bank account. If I’d brought cash I’d just change it at a foreign exchange and be done, but I laugh at cash, remember? and what cash I brought has been used (thank you, Eileen, for the gift of cash. It prevented me from sleeping at the airport.) In my defense, when I traveled in the third world before, nominal American cash was plenty to tide me over, and everywhere else I've been is in Europe, which knows a Mastercard when it sees one. Though in theory I can extract money from my debit or credit card in any large bank branch for a small fee, in practice three of the largest banks in the country, Standard, AFN and ABSA, have been unable to get approval for such a transaction from either card, perhaps because of the large number of fraud prevention measures in place to deal with the crazy crime issue. I am left with the trusty ATMs, except for the dang security issues, and the fact that some have an arbitrary maximum daily limit that is far less than I need to pay ol’ Steve, and other ATMs inform me they don’t have enough notes to pay me (oh yeah? Then how come the guy behind me can still use the machine?) all of which means I’ve been making trips to the ATM every day to withdraw my max and ferrying it home to Steve. Given that the road between the high-limit ATMs and my landlord is the very one I was mugged on, understandably I am hesitant to carry a bunch of cash there, so I usually resort to taxis – not a big deal, in rand, but annoying on principle.

Alas, Steve is even more tech-averse, or South Africa-savvy, than I am: he did not want me to attempt an automatic transfer, which I can orchestrate online from my home bank to his, or use Paypal, as that would “get tied up in Johannesburg and take days, possibly weeks” to reach his account. Perhaps he prefers his money in arbitrary-maximum-daily-limited amounts, because if he must wait a few days, better to have the money incrementally than wait for some Authority to approve a transaction all at once. I have a notion he’s being a little melodramatic about the transaction delay because he’d prefer cash, but as I am the one unable to pay him all at once, I can’t very well demand he give me his bank account number so I can try a transfer if he’d prefer I trundle along to the ATM for four days straight instead. It’s just inefficient and stupid, but don’t mind me, I'm the jackass who left my home country with no cash.

There’s an extremely interesting (and timely, for me) special report in the last Economist about the economic reasons behind huge numbers of mobile phones in developing nations, now home to 75% of the world’s handsets. The Economist points out, “In places with bad roads, unreliable postal services, few trains and parlous landlines, mobile phones can substitute for travel, allow quicker and easier access to information on prices, enable traders to reach wider markets, boost entrepreneurship and generally make it easier to do business.” They go on to explain the marvel of mobile money for the millions of “unbanked”, those to whom established forms of finance and savings are unavailable. In Kenya, for instance, a mobile money business called M-PESA allows over 7 million people to add money to their phone accounts in one place, and send it by text to a branch office who can then fork over cash to relatives in distant places – safer than the walk to an ATM, assuming there are any around. So workers in Nairobi can send cash back home to their mothers in Nakuru by cell phone, but I can’t get my rent to Steve, or pay with a credit card in a clean, health-conscious grocery store in a city that is by all accounts the Palm Springs of Africa? WTF?

Those Kenyans have benefitted from technological leapfrogging, wherein a good idea is made better by the people who adapt it last. In 2006, the Economist defined it thusly, “Such leapfrogging involves adopting a new technology directly, and skipping over the earlier, inferior versions of it that came before.” It's like modern fish skipping the whole emerging-from-the-sea on legs part and going right to being birds, having watched the past some-odd million years of evolution, and deciding that flying looks like more fun; meanwhile, early adaptor mammals are still lumbering around on all fours, feeling pretty pleased with themselves as long as they don't look up.  So it seems that the parallel world of Cape Town, South Africa, is in a bit of a time-warp itself, maybe a victim of its own earlier success; once the runaway leader in Westernization on this continent, it is now the unfortunate 2nd-world link between a working western capitalism and the nimble mobility of emerging economies, essentially a cash-on-the-barrelhead kind of place (at least when dealing with my Landlord, and maybe everyone, if what he says about transfer delays is true.) A doppleganger Woolworth’s, but not M-PESA. In that regard, this first-world veneer over a half-formed infrastructure may end up preventing this country, or at least this city, from prospering from tech advances as quickly as their long-suffering neighbors are poised to do.  It's certainly preventing me from getting my money - blink! - to Steve's South African bank in a timely fashion.

As for me, I best get moving off the couch to make it to the ATM for Steve’s daily pound of flesh. I’ll have to negotiate holding some back today, though: I think there is a braai at the International House of Business Students tomorrow, so I’ll need some cash to make it to the liquor store….which closes at 5:00 on Fridays. In Kenya, you can probably have liquor blinked to your doorstep all night, but if I don’t get a move on, I’m going to be bringing along the ginger ale and Pop Tarts from yesterday's trip to Woolworth's.


  1. Awesome post. But I'd be curious to know what the requirements are for you to get set up phone-paying for things there; they do it in Japan. It's like a debit card, only with a killer Wu-Tang Clan ringtone.

  2. tanks, bro. it's possible - i can research it, but again i think the problem is infrastructure: in Kenya, there are these western-union-like operators set up to take and dispense cash, and doing that in this case would mean Steve would have to find one such operator...and why would he do that when he has all this 1st world banking at his disposal? it's just not at MY disposal, alas. And I'm not sure how linking my money to my phone would mean that it clears his account any sooner, or why not just Paypal it?

  3. Only Kelly Cronin can put Woolworths (2 types even!), debit cards, pop-tarts and international banking in one blog. Hats off to you darling. you're Economist-style.