Stacks Of Cash: A Game Theory Application Of What To Do When A Credit Card Reader Breaks

Everyone always tells you to carry cash. My dad has drilled that into me and my brother since we were young, and it’s proven correct more times than once. However, I still never carry cash. The cost of going to the ATM, getting cash out, and then actually carrying a wallet is simply too high for me.

I have too much trust in society. I figured that since we are such a technologically-driven world that every establishment has a Square App, Shopify, or PayAnywhere or any one of the dozens of credit card readers that are on the market now. I am also big believe in NFC, which doesn’t even require a card – just a smartphone.

So picture this – I am finishing my Saturday night grocery shipping at Aldi’s (best time to go, no one is ever there) and get in line. I do this EVERY week. The family in front of me pays with cash (this is important), and then it is my turn. I was already a little stressed because I couldn’t get all my stuff on the moving belt quickly enough, and I felt like the cashier was judging me. Nothing unusual, yet.

So he rings everything up, tells me my total, and I get out my credit card. I insert it into the chip reader, and it is declined. I was horrified. I noticed the card had a bit of dirt on it from my run earlier, so I wiped it off and tried again.


I tried my debit card (which I know has money on it). Declined. Declined. Declined. A line is starting to form. I am sweating. Everyone is looking at me with pity in their eyes and I don’t know what to do.

I hear the decline sound again, but from a different register. Sweet relief. It wasn’t just me! Apparently, all of Aldi’s card readers went out.

The Aldi’s crew called their Help Desk, and no one answered. So people started to get nervous. The registers could only accept cash or check. Cash-only customers were sent to the front of the line to check out, and leave.

A trend emerged. The”prepared ones” stepped forward, cash ready, and paid, and left. Us card holders were left behind, holding our useless pieces of plastic and wishing that we had thought to bring a checkbook.

After another 20 mins, another trend emerged. 

People were thinking about leaving their carts behind to go get money. Or they were thinking about leaving in general, abandoning their carts completely.

One woman went and got her checkbook. Another drove off to an ATM. I called my friend for cash (big shout-out to Bonny, saved me there). Others waited it out, hoping that the registers would get fixed, and making the implicit assumption that the registers would get fixed in less time than it would take them to go and get cash.

Others just left their carts entirely, like the girl behind me. She had two items, and we lamented over our ill-timing (remember, the card reader went out on me). Once the Aldi’s crew said there was no ETA on the wait time, she dropped all her stuff and walked out of the store.

I waited until my friend brought me cash, about 42 minutes after the reader went out.

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Danielle Rogers 10 months ago Member's comment

I would say a critical factor is how much time was spent GATHERING the items you wanted to buy. If only a few, just go to a different supermarket. If a lot, ask to put it aside and have them hold it for you (assuming there's no melting ice cream to worry about). Time is money, and the fault was theirs not yours.