Not-So-Small Small Change

Interview with Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s Top Prosecutor
June 11, 2015
Copy of New Doc 18_1
A Conversation With Mr. Dooley
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The young woman looked at me like I was crazy. I had just handed her 21 lei to pay for groceries that cost 20.91 lei. She finished helping me bag the items, handed me my receipt and began to ring up the next customer when I interrupted her, forced an awkward smile, and asked her for my change. She looked confused. I repeated my request. “You owe me 10 bani,” I said, knowing there was no way she was able to give me nine. Forcing an awkward half-smile of her own, she looked down, and picked up a 10-bani coin from the small collection of coins that had accumulated near the plastic bags – you know the pile, that collection of assorted coins people don’t bother to pick up after she places them on the counter rather than in their outstretched open palms (which I happen to find incredibly rude, but that’s a different topic).

Now, because I could not explain to her at that moment why I did this, I’m explaining to you. I don’t need 10 bani. (For you someplace else, that’s officially 2.5 cents in America using the current exchange rate, though it’s more equivalent to a dime or more in people’s pocketbooks here). In fact, few people I see in stores here need 10 bani. Or, I should say, few people need only 10 bani. And banks here don’t hand out paper sleeves for you to wrap coins in and there are no automatic change machines to “cash in” your cash. So lots of this loose change gets left at the registers.

But not by me. Why? It’s true that sometimes I benefit when the cashier ignores that I owe her five or 10 bani and she tells me not to bother. But that is not nearly as common as her expectation that I should ignore the fact that she is the one who is doing the owing. No. More often than not, cashiers will wait for me to produce a paper 1 leu and then place eight or nine coins on the counter for me to pick up.

So the issue is not the money. It is the assumption of these people, and the tacit complicity of the grocery stores, that grates at me. As I said, five or 10 bani to me is not very important. Not in isolation. And, the assumption goes, it is not important enough for the store to bother about either. But think for a moment what is happening here. Consider the thinking. And consider the result at the end of the day when this same type of transaction has been repeated over and over and over and over. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to use the old silly argument that begins by asking what if what happened to me happened to everyone.)

The MegaImage store where I most frequently shop has seven cash registers. In casual conversation with an employee there, I’m told the store easily has several thousand customers each day. A worker at one of those tiny MegaImage stores that has just one cash register in a different neighborhood tells me they have several hundred each day. Now, we could attempt to estimate this by assigning a 1 percent chance that each purchase equals a different amount of bani – you know, 9.00 lei, 9.01, 9.02, 9.03, etc. We could then estimate whether it’s more or less likely to receive the change from the cashier, or if she is likely to let me not pay the four bani, or if the total is 9.05 and I give her 9 and a 10-bani coin, whether I’d get back five bani, etc., etc., etc. From that, we could estimate how much change would be left over.

But really, let’s keep the math simple. Let’s say just 44 times a day at each store (that might be a very high 10 percent of transactions at one store but only 1 percent at others), someone doesn’t bother to receive (or pick up) the five, 10, 15, or even 20 bani that is owed to them. Let’s assume that the cashier will forego on average five or 10 bani from a customer. This would mean there is an average of 10 bani remaining each time in favor of the store.

If it happens 44 times at each store by the end of the day, that is equivalent to one euro. Not a big deal. But we assume it happens every day, 365 times in a year. That is 365 euros a year that this store might be “keeping.” Again, who cares? Well, the MegaImage group has more than 400 stores in Romania. So cumulatively, the company could conceivably be collecting 146,000 euros each year from all this “irrelevant” change just floating in or out of their system. That might not seem like much to MegaImage (it’s 2 percent of just 1 percent of its revenue), but for some folks out there, this adds up to real money.

Now if I knew the employees were slipping all this into their pockets at the end of their work shift as they balanced the printed receipts with the cash-in-drawer tally, I’d be fine with that. If this is the case, however, I’d prefer there was just an explicit tip jar at the register. Or they could do something similar to what you find in the US where there are often small bowls at the register with customers’ discarded pennies and a sign that says “Take a penny, Leave a penny” to help you provide exact change.

Or how about another option: how about some jars at each register in which all those unneeded coins are collected for children, for education, for battered women, for the homeless, for blood donation, for the hungry? Doesn’t that make a lot more sense than expecting me to carelessly “donate” it to the store that I’m already paying just so the cashier doesn’t have to bother to go out of her way and complete her job by giving me my money? In fact, isn’t that what companies do to demonstrate they care and that they are part of our community? Isnt’ that what they do to increase my sense of loyalty to them?

This sounds, I suppose, as if I’m attacking MegaImage. I’m not. Well, I am, but that’s not my intention. I’ve seen their press release about at least one community fund it established that appears to have donated about 14,000 euros last year (about one-tenth of the amount of our spare change scenario). And certainly, the company is not the only, nor is it the largest, retail chain where all this small change, from an accounting standpoint at least, mysteriously disappears. It merely has the misfortune of being the store in my neighborhood where I prefer to buy groceries.

So, let’s return to that register and explain this quite simply. No, young lady, it was not the 10 bani that I needed. I just wanted to put a stop for a moment to the tacit suggestion that you take customers for granted and that institutionally, perhaps, you don’t recognize the impact that even small change can have. And to repeat this once more, I’d much rather give that money to charity than just ignore it existed. But, of course, for me to do that, you would first have to give me my change – and please, just this once, try to place it in my hand.

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  1. Adi says:

    That is why I try to use a bank card most of the times. Now with the contactless payments it is really quick.

    • Peter Frank says:

      Good idea. But you know you are in the minority. Roughly half the people in this country have no relationship with a bank. And last time I checked, about 85 percent of the value of all payment card transactions was from people pulling cash out of ATMs. So apparently there are a lot of coins floating around out there.

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