'Cashless' State Fair smells like a blunder

Todd Dorman
Published: January 8 2014 | 1:38 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:48 am in

The Iowa State Fair appears to be committing New Coke.

Maybe you're too young to remember when Coca Cola chucked its traditional formula in 1985 and released a revamped blend it called New Coke. It was as popular as influenza. Eventually, after taking a monumental public beating, Coke retreated and launched Coke Classic, made with the old formula. New Coke disappeared and became a first-ballot entrant into the customer relations blunder hall of fame.

The lesson: if you have a brand that's not broken, don't fix it.

This week, the Iowa State Fair announced that it's going "cashless." Fairgoers who want to buy corn dogs or funnel cakes or mini donuts or a giant cup of melting ice with half a lemon and a few sips of lemonade will not be able to use American money. On the fairgrounds, good old greenbacks will have all the purchasing power of Yen or Euros or old Chuck. E. Cheese tokens.

Instead, State Fair patrons will need to buy 50-cent tickets that can be exchanged for food, drinks and what not. The tickets can be purchased with a credit or debit card at 150 spots scattered around the joint. They can also be purchased online in advance. The tickets won't expire, so unused ones can be used next year. If you can find them.

This news has not been well received. Comments on the fair's Facebook page include many exclamation points. All-caps are fully locked. Terrible, horrible, stupid, ridiculous and dumbest idea ever are among the common sentiments. "I hate this," one person wrote. This person is not alone.

I, too, think this is a lousy idea. It's a money thing dressed up as a "convenience and efficiency" thing. It's tough to see how waiting in line for tickets will be more convenient. It's hard to understand how fiddling with 10 tickets is more efficient than handing a vendor a five spot. It's one more bleeping hassle. I love the State Fair, but with parking and crowds and existing long lines for popular fair grub, one more hassle is not welcome.

The State Fair would seem to be, primarily, a customer service operation. So it's strange to see it make a decision that promises to be so unpopular with customers. And I'm betting it will be particularly unpopular with its best customers, folks who spend multiple days at the event, who have been going for years and see a big change as unwelcome.

Lord knows I'm not against change, if it's for the better. If the State Fair had announced that we could now walk up to a vendor, order four corn dogs and swipe a debit card to pay for them, that would be great, convenient and cashless. Instead, we'll be queuing up to stuff our pockets with tickets.

If cash is the problem, maybe the fair should go full barter. I could, perhaps, write a column on the virtues of delicious Iowa pork in exchange for a chop dinner. A decent wrist watch might get you a funnel cake. Will work for turkey legs? How many burgers can I get for this runner up steer?

Regardless, my family will probably keep its annual August appointment. And maybe, like New Coke, the fair will smartly retreat.

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