||Change has changed
By Garrison Frost
We've all been taught that change is good. Whether it comes in the form of social activism, new clothes, self-help, political reform, a new computer or a better alternative rock band change excites us with the energy of the new. Change makes life interesting. It revitalizes us. It breaks us free from the moorings of the past and sends us headlong into the future.
Then there's the kind of change that the cashier hands you at the grocery store like when we purchase $12.43 worth of donuts and hand the clerk a $20 bill.
While everyone likes this kind of change, it just isn't what it used to be. In short, change has changed, and not for the better. And I'm not talking about how every quarter looks different these days or how some Republicans want to replace Franklin Roosevelt's face with Ronald Reagan's on the dime. No, it goes deeper than that.
Back in the days before cash registers totaled up your bill to electronic perfection, it used to be left to the cashier to actually count out how much cash the customer was to receive back on each purchase. Rather than take risks associated with doing all sorts of complicated math in their heads, cashiers figured out a way to give change that was both accurate and assured customers that they were not being cheated.
The method was simple: Cashiers would simply start with the total amount owed and count money into the customers hand until they reached the amount the person had paid. For instance, in the transaction above, the cashier would count money in front of the customer, all the while saying the following, "That's $12.50, $13, $15 and $20." It was a foolproof method that made every transaction simple and secure. No one had to do the math and no one needed to. It worked perfectly; no one does it anymore.
Now that cash registers calculate the amount of change owed, all a clerk is asked to do is dig the specified amount of cash out of the drawer and give it to the customer. In a gesture toward the integrity of the old manner of giving the customer change, cashiers will often count the money into your hand, only now they will simply count out the amount that the cash register says is the correct change. Using our example, the cashier will pile money into your one free hand and say, "Your change is seven fifty-three. That's one, two, seven and 53 cents." Really, there is nothing about this manner of counting out change that ensures confidence or accuracy. If you want to know if the amount of change is correct, you still have to do the math yourself or count it back to yourself the way cashiers used to do it. It's really just a waste of everybody's time.
Not that you have the time to ponder this, for at the end of a typical transaction these days, you're too busy trying to get your money back into your wallet. If you're like everyone else on the planet, if you're waiting for your change, you're holding your wallet in one hand with your other hand outstretched. Why do cashiers, knowing that you only have one free hand, pile all the change into your hand at once usually the change on top of the bills? This forces you to set the wallet down so you have a free hand to separate your money and organize it into your wallet. No big deal, unless the cashier is already ringing up the next person in line, and that person is now looming over you because you're standing where he thinks he should be. And the cashier has already bagged the next person's merchandise and now you can't tell which sack is yours and which belongs to the aforementioned impatient fellow customer.
And of course you've got to make a decision about the receipt, which at my grocery store has stretched into a two-foot-long ribbon of coupons and marketing messages. Forget that I'm paying cash and I only bought a couple of things. Do I keep it? Do I throw it away? Do I leave it on the counter? Maybe I just throw it into my bag, so I can quietly do away with it later. I'm certainly not going to read it. Who gives a crap if I could have saved nine cents if I had only given the store my home phone number and address? On the rare occasion that I do glance at the coupons, it's easy to see that the store is using my purchase to determine which coupons I'm getting. If I bought cat food, perhaps I might like a coupon for another brand of cat food, or maybe cat litter. Sure, maybe they think they're helping me, but I don't really want a store getting in my head like that.
It wasn't so long ago that the cashier would just count out my change so that I knew I was getting the right amount, handing me the bills first so that I could put them into my wallet before the coins. Receipts and coupons were optional. Those were the days when change was change before it changed.
(Feb. 9, 2005)
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