Monday, October 27, 2008

Shortchanged by loose change

This is my column today.

I don’t know when the practice started; I just know that it has become the norm in most commercial establishments when one is paying for a purchase at the checkout counter.
What happens is that whenever one pays for a purchase—let’s say French fries and a burger at Jollibee or a pair of socks at Shoemart—the cashier first asks for a smaller bill. Say your total purchase is P144.75 and you hand over a five-hundred peso bill—the cashier first asks if you have bills in smaller denominations. And then she asks for loose change—“Sir, do you have 75 cents?” before she goes through the motions of scrambling around to come up with the required smaller bills and coins as change. Before one knows it, the transaction has been elevated to a complicated negotiation and settlement process involving the exchange of loose change.

It as if one is expected to carry around wads of bills in various denominations as well as the contents of one’s piggy bank in a large bayong, and pay for purchases with the exact amount down to the last centavo.

Some customers put up a blank facial expression and project this “it’s not my problem” attitude—and sometimes not too subtly. I’ve personally witnessed irate customers expressing annoyance and giving cashiers a tongue-lashing in the process. Non-confrontational people like me oblige, albeit sheepishly, because I am not the type who carries around coins in my pocket in the first place and is therefore hard put to fork over loose change. In case no one has noticed, coin purses went out of style a long time ago.

One wonders if establishments are really hard put coming up with loose change or it’s a mechanism to simplify their lives—you know, like training customers to pay for their purchases with the exact amount so their staff does not have to do too much arithmetic. A friend of mine who sees conspiracy theories in most anything suspects the worse. He sees this trend as another way to fleece money from customers.

You see, there’s this other thing that has become almost a norm as well: Sales clerk not anymore giving out the exact change and instead apologizing to customers for being short of a few cents, so technically, one ends up paying more for purchases than the actual cost. It’s not fair to customers. But who wants to create a scene especially when there is a long line of customers giving you dagger looks for being difficult and for being a tightwad?

Other establishments have come up with their own solution to the problem. They give out candies instead of loose change. I know. That doesn’t really strike many people as a solution because not everyone likes candies—and even if one does, there is still the problem of personal preferences for candy brands and flavors. My friend—the paranoid one, sees this as yet another mechanism to swindle customers as the cost of the candies are most often less than the actual amount owed to the customer, and then there is the other matter of deriving profits from each bag of candies “sold” to customers.

Other coping mechanisms, usually employed in smaller establishments such as in neighborhood groceries and sari-sari stores have shopkeepers asking customers to buy more to bring the cost of the total purchase to a round number effectively doing away with the need to give out small change. One ends up with more purchases than originally intended. Sigh.

We are told, unofficially of course, that all these are happening because there is a shortage of coins in this country. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, has time and again, issued the usual denials insisting that they mint more than enough coins to sustain commerce in this country.
One reason for the perceived—I think artificial is the more accurate term— shortage of coins in this country is the fact that a large percentage of small change end up being stored in the variety of cans and plastic bottles for various charitable causes. We find these cans everywhere—right beside cashiers at major stores, gasoline stations, even at tellers’ cages in most banks. These cans take some time, perhaps months, to fill up. The coins end up being stored for a long time.

And of course, there’s the very popular Pondo Ng Pinoy project of the Catholic Church which encourages everyone to fill up empty plastic bottles with loose change specifically 25-centavo coins. It seems like a noble cause and the parable of the mumo (food scraps from the dinner table) that inspired the whole cause teaches a powerful lesson about sharing and charity. The problem is that many people take the cause very literally. I know many people who deliberately exchange thousands of pesos for 25-centavo coins in order to fill up several Pondo bottles instead of simply writing a check or donating the large bills directly to the Church. The practice creates several cumbersome steps that create more work for people out of what should have been a simple and straightforward affair.

I am tempted to go into a discourse on how these projects inadvertently lull many people into thinking that giving loose change to charity already constitutes full compliance to their moral responsibility as Catholics, but that’s really another column.

I agree that projects such as the Pondo Ng Pinoy do contribute to the whole new phenomenon I described at the beginning of this column. But it’s more complicated than just having a lot of loose change being inadvertently hoarded in some parishes and rectories nationwide. The problem of disappearing coins has more to do with the fact that inflation has practically rendered lower denomination coins worthless—in most cases, not even equal to the worth of the metal content that goes into each coin.

At least we don’t have the problems in other countries such as India where truckloads of rupee coins end up being smuggled to neighboring countries to be manufactured into razor blades. Some people did try to smuggle coins out of the country several times, but the attempts were foiled by authorities. As a result, many central banks, including our very own, have reduced the metal content in some coins, which unfortunately, further fortified the perception that the coins are worthless because they do look and feel like plastic playthings.

No wonder many of these coins end up being stuck in drawers or just anywhere instead of being used as instruments of commerce. Can anyone actually describe what’s in a 10-centavo coin, or even what it looks like today? It’s a sad reflection of our times that very, very few will pick up a ten-centavo coin that’s been dropped on the street today. The joke is that even beggars won’t accept them.

Major establishments continue to hoodwink us into thinking that their products are more consumer-friendly because they are priced a few centavos short of a round figure—for example, pricing a jacket at P1,999 instead of P2,000. But they don’t have one centavo coins in their cash registers. Or 10-centavo coins. Or 25-centavo coins. And so we go through the whole complication of coming to a settlement agreement on the butal and in the end paying more than the advertised price instead.

The buying power of coins with low denominations is practically zero, which begs the question: Shouldn’t we already put in place a more systemic rationalization of the real relevance of lower denomination coins?

1 comment:

Twin-Skies said...

Personally, I don't usually spend my coins. I save up the pisos, 5-peso, and 10-peso coins at the end of each day, and at the end of the month, I count it up and have it converted into paper cash at the bank.

You'd be surprised with how much you can save up in loose change with this habit - and I imagine the banks are only too happy to get the coins :)