Nova Scotia

Down the aisle, past the pet food is Cape Breton's first bitcoin ATM

A convenience store in Sydney, N.S., is the first business on Cape Breton Island to allow customers to purchase cryptocurrency with cash in person.

The machine lets customers purchase digital currency with real cash

A bitcoin ATM machine is shown next to a conventional ATM at Mac's Convenience in Sydney, N.S. (Christian Roach/CBC)

A convenience store in Sydney, N.S., is leading Cape Breton into the digital-currency age with a new bitcoin ATM featured inside the store.

Mac's Convenience, near downtown Sydney, has been taking advantage of the rise in popularity of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, and is the only business on the island to let customers purchase the online currency with real cash in person.

A variety of new businesses have come out of the woodwork to capitalize on the massive popularity of cryptocurrencies. One company, LocalCoin, has been expanding into Atlantic Canada. Last year, it scouted possible locations in Cape Breton. It was very interested in Mac's Convenience, which is adjacent to Wentworth Park.

"They certainly did hone in on the fact that they really liked our location," said Leanne Boutilier, co-owner of the Mac's. "We were very centrally based. We're on the cusp of downtown Sydney."

LocalCoin has already invested heavily in expanding within Canada. Its website says it is "Canada's largest bitcoin ATM network," with more than 500 terminals across the country.

Bitcoin is the oldest and most successful form of digital currency called cryptocurrency. In the last few months, it has surged in popularity and price. It is currently hovering at a value of over $70,000 for 1 bitcoin —  a lot more than the value $15,000 a year ago.

Mac's is home to Cape Breton's first bitcoin ATM. (Christian Roach/CBC)

Boutilier and her partner, Sheldon, became the owners of the Mac's store about two years ago. Since then, the couple has been looking for new opportunities for the business.

Boutilier said after research they decided early this spring to install the machine near the back of the store beside a traditional ATM. She said it's increased traffic and added more regular customers at Mac's.

"So now we're seeing that they're coming back and they're coming back not just for the bitcoin purchase, but now they're coming back to grab their eggs ... grab their lotto ticket or whatever the case may be," said Boutilier. "So it certainly has increased our customer base, which is fantastic."

Although bitcoin is bringing people into Mac's, the high transaction fees of some cryptocurrencies make it expensive to use like real cash. Caleb Gibbons, a finance lecturer with Cape Breton University, said the average fees for bitcoin are more than $3.

"So, you know, to buy a packet of gum or a basket of groceries, it's a fairly high transaction cost," Gibbons said.

Bitcoin holders can purchase things over the internet with the cryptocurrency. But many who acquire bitcoin do it as a form of currency speculation, and hope to sell their bitcoin at a profit some time in the future.

Mac's co-owner Leanne Boutilier said the store installed the ATM in early spring. (Christian Roach/CBC)

There's also environmental concerns related how much computing power and electricity it takes to "mine" bitcoin, a process that involves solving complex computational mathematical equations.

"Bitcoin mining now is using more energy than nation states like, you know, Portugal, Spain," said Gibbons, adding there are efforts to make it more sustainable.

Like any new technology people don't fully understand, the world of cryptocurrency has been rife with scammers and opportunists looking to take advantage of people. Scammers pretending to be from the Canada Revenue Agency or other organizations have contacted victims and demanded they send bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies via an ATM.

Boutilier was aware of the risks involved in cryptocurrency and reached out to the Cape Breton Regional Police when the machine was installed.

"We wanted to find out what we could best do to protect our customer," said Boutilier. "You'll never have a government agency look for a bitcoin payment from you."

More ATMs expected

The ATM also has a prominent red sticker on the front warning users of scammers. Boutilier said there hasn't been any incidents at her store and staff are ready to help new users navigate how to buy and deposit their cryptocurrency safely.

The machine's use started slowly at first, but Boutilier said it's steadily increased since word has spread and she thinks other businesses nearby will eventually follow her lead.

"So now once you see that one machine is here and you see that there's certainly traffic coming to it. I do sort of expect that other retailers will probably jump on board in the coming 12 months and so on," said Boutilier.

"At least that's the hope, right? Cryptocurrency certainly, they say, is part of the future, right? So the more that that technology is available to customers, I think that they'll engage it."