“500 customers in the supermarket can’t pay”

What would happen if it were suddenly not possible to pay with a credit or debit card? Would your local supermarket let you run up a bill? As part of a research project, county administrators, politicians, and stores have played a simulation game, to help them prepare for handling an emergency.

Sweden is one of the countries in the world most dependent on payment cards, and the question arises: what would happen if the payment system failed to function for ten days.

This is the central question of “Om betalsystemet krashar” (in English: “Consequences of payment system disruption”), a research project with researchers from the University of Skövde, Linköping University, Mid Sweden University and the Combitech company. Two researchers from LiU’s Department of Computer and Information Science have participated in the project: Björn Johansson, adjunct professor, and Peter Berggren, adjunct senior lecturer. The project is financed by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB).

During the four years of the project, county administrative boards from 15 counties have played a role-playing game to simulate the scenario. The county administrative boards have invited participants, such as local politicians, the media, store owners, petrol stations managers, and companies that supply cash machines with money.

500 customers in the supermarket

The game situation begins with the participants in a room being told by the game controller that the payment system has crashed. They are asked: “What are you going to do?”.

“It’s often the store owners and petrol station managers who react most strongly in the beginning. It’s an immediate problem for them. What do you do if 500 customers are standing in the supermarket and can’t pay? Should you deploy more security guards? The municipality may be more focussed on how to help vulnerable groups”, says Björn Johansson.

The game contains a simulator – a computer program that calculates payment flows, transport and other phenomena. It also simulates the various needs of citizens, such as filling up the car or buying food. The simulated situation changes, depending on the actions of the participants.

So how do the participants react?

“Many of them realise that it’s important to spread information about the payment disruption quickly. Tell people that we don’t know how long it will last, and we are doing everything possible to fix it. People should not run to the shops and buy as much food as possible. Take it easy, and wait for developments”, says Björn Johansson.

Trying to find alternatives

At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, people started to stock up on certain goods. One way to prevent this is to limit how much money can be withdrawn from the cash machines.

“Most of the shop owners do not want to close. This is not good for them nor for the customers. Maybe you should limit the number of customers allowed into the store at any one time. Assume that you start to allow people to run up a bill. Then you can’t manage so many customers in the store”, says Peter Berggren.

Store owners also try to find alternative payment methods.

“People start to talk about Swish and other digital payment methods. So we have put some limitations on this in the game. Maybe the Swish system crashes because it can’t cope with so many users at the same time”, says Peter Berggren.

An unplanned event

As the game progresses, the LiU researchers observe the actions of the participants and how they work together.

“We have created an instrument that includes an observation protocol. We listen to what the players say, and observe the strategies they develop. Then we try to categorise the strategies, based on a theoretical model in which we investigate resilience”, says Björn Johansson.

To put it simply, resilience is a way of measuring the ability of a system to cope with disruption. Does it have the flexibility and adaptability required to manage a situation that it was not originally created for?

“A disruption of the payment system of this magnitude is a typical example of an unplanned event. We don’t have the organisation in place to deal with a ten-day disruption of the payment system”, says Björn Johansson.

The game – a result of research

The project has concluded and presented its final report. In this, the researchers emphasise how important it is to spread information quickly, and that stores should be prepared to accept other payment methods than payment cards.

“It’s also important that organisations of this type practise together, such that they have met each other and understand each other’s needs. These actors seldom meet each other in normal circumstances. The manager of a petrol station and the local corner shop are seldom included in the emergency planning of the county administrative board”, says Peter Berggren.

In addition to research articles and the report, the game itself is a result of the research project. It is a teaching tool that has been developed and improved each time it is played.

“We have created the game and the methods used. It’s now open for the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, county administrative boards and others to use. The project has ended, but the game is still available”, says Björn Johansson.

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