Sunday, May 17, 2015

Loose change


My May 17, 2015 column.
We were in Tagaytay the other weekend and on our way back we got momentarily confused at the toll gates of South Superhighway because all the gates were labelled “Exact Toll.” We thought all lanes had been turned into “Exact Toll Only” so we rummaged around the car and in our bags to come up with the exact amount.  
It turns out the signs basically asked people to pay the exact toll in each of the gates, an appeal that made perfect sense because people can really prepare in advance and in the process reduce both queuing and travel time. This is particularly relevant for people who use the expressway every day – instead of whining about how the long queues invariably make travel time longer, they can prepare in advance the exact money for their toll, the amount of which they already know anyway. I am told the “request” was triggered by the observation that queuing time in our expressways is significantly reduced when more people pay the exact toll and by the fact that there is now an imminent shortage of coins in this country.
The shortage of coins in this country is aggravated by the tingi (retail) system that is predominant in our culture. There are now many micro-businesses that essentially operate on coins - from the so-called piso-net Internet and gaming machines, to videoke singing machines, and to various types of vending machines that dispense coffee and other types of beverages, bathroom supplies in public toilets, and even snacks. The thing is, the people who operate these machines do not return the coins back into general circulation. They keep the coins for the exclusive use of their machines.
I saw the phenomenon for myself a couple of weeks ago when I attended a fiesta celebration early this month in a remote barangay in Cebu. Our host owned a number of piso-net machines and some coffee and water-vending machines. I was shocked to see bags of one peso coins in his house; he said he needed to stock up on peso coins to ensure the sustainability of his businesses. What happens is that his customers exchange their bills for coins
they use to play games in the piso-net machines, or to buy beverages or snacks from vending machines. I wanted to point out to him that what he was doing was not fair as he was essentially abrogating public resources for personal gain, but I bit my tongue. It’s difficult to argue with people with a paradigm that says being poor gives people license to take certain liberties when they could. 
Add to these the fact that more and more people seem to dislike carrying coins with them and therefore store coins in various receptacles at their houses and offices. I am told most people now empty their pockets or their designer bags of weight-adding coins as soon as they reach their houses or their offices. And then there are those who use coins illegally as material for making jewelry and other decorative stuff.
A clear manifestation of the shortage is the fact that cashiers everywhere invariably ask customers for change at checkout stations in malls and restaurants. If one’s purchases include loose change, cashiers have made it a habit to ask customers to cough up the loose change, often triggering an amusing exchange akin to a negotiation. “Sir, do you have 75 cents?” “Sorry I only have 25 cents.” “Can I have the 25 cents and I’ll give you 50 cents?” And so on.
Coins are actually expensive to produce as they require certain types of metals -resources that are getting scarce as they are not inexhaustible. I wonder when our leaders will address the situation with proactive solutions? For example, retailers can be encouraged to do away with pricing strategies that require loose change. Our legislators can study the possibility of regulating the production of machines that operate on coins rather than specially-designed tokens that can be produced separately and exclusively for such businesses. We can also shift to paper- or plastic-based currency. We can plan to do away with coins altogether although that would require a comprehensive transition plan. Our options are many, but first things first: We need to recognize there is a problem looming in the horizon.

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