Nothing personal: Two grocery chains attempt to ban check-writing customers

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In a move that highlights the shifting face of American banking, two large grocery chains are changing the way they let customers pay for food. Fresh & Easy has stopped taking personal checks at its 70 California stores, and Whole Foods Market (WFMI) is testing a check-free policy at two Los Angeles stores and one in Arizona.

Amid today's endless array of payment options, it's easy to forget that checks represented the ultimate in banking convenience just a few decades ago. Before ATMs, debit cards, and easy access to credit cards, most consumers relied on checks to buy things at stores, supermarkets, and malls. Many grocery stores let customers write checks for more than their bill, amounting to basic cash withdrawals that could be conducted without a trip to the bank.
But history has moved on, and what was once a major convenience has become quite the opposite. With many customers using online banking to check their balances and debit cards combining the ease of credit cards with the reliability of checking, personal checks have become an unwieldy, annoying way to pay, and an impediment to easy recordkeeping. Most stores demand proof of identity with personal checks; many ask for a credit card as a backup form of payment. Many eBay sellers refuse to take checks, due to their unreliability and their slowness to clear. And among those companies that do still accept checks, e-checks have become increasingly common, enabling check users to experience the ease of credit cards.

Personal checks do have a certain low-tech charm. For some customers, the time lag between writing a check and having it cashed can be a lifesaver. But this ease comes with a price: many vendors let checks pile up before going to the banks, creating delays that can leave customers confused about their bank balances. And as anybody who has been caught behind a check-writing customer knows, paying by check is slow and irritating.

Still, old habits die hard. It will be interesting to see if Whole Foods and Fresh & Easy lose customers on their way to the next generation of commerce.

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