10:19 am
Tue November 4, 2003

A Twenty for Your Frustration

Wally has had trouble buying groceries with the new twenty dollar bill.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Wally's commentary.]

There I stood in the checkout at a local grocery store, ready to kill something.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about those crisp, colorful new twenty dollar bills.

I'm a city boy. I visit the grocery almost every day for a couple of items and most of the time I use the automated checkout so I can get in and out faster. My plan wasn't working.

Actually, it was the cash machine that wasn't working. In response to that horrid voice commanding me to "Insert your coins in the coin acceptor before inserting your bills in the bill acceptor" I had skipped the coin part altogether and was attempting to pay for my groceries with a crisp new twenty.

Bill went in. Bill came out. I know the machines are sometimes as finicky as all getout so I smoothed and straightened the already new and crisp bill.

Bill went in. Bill came out. Ok, I figured, there's something wrong with this bill. I'll try another one.

Bill went in. Bill came out. This happened a couple of more times. I was hunting around for a weapon of mass destruction to use on the machine when the cashier assigned to the automated checkout took pity on me. "It's those new bills," she said, "The machine doesn't like 'em."

And so it was. After years of development, after what the Bureau of Engraving and Printing swears was 85 million pieces of notification to the vending machine industry over more than a year, and despite a $32 million awareness campaign, my new twenties wouldn't work in the automated checkout machines at the supermarket.

This seems preposterous, but it is indeed so. All across this great land change machines in supermarkets and coin laundries and gambling venues and other places are spitting back the new twenties stuffed into them.

Out in California the Bay Area Rapid Transit system has found it necessary to install separate machines that change new twenties into older-type currency which will then work in the ticket vending machines. And many of the Sprint stores around the country have payment machines that will blithely throw the new twenties back at you.

In some ways this is part of an old tradition. Remember the two dollar bill? The Bureau of Engraving and Printing pumped millions of them into the cash supply even though there was no slot for them in the gazillion retail industries cash drawers.

And how about the Susan B. Anthony dollar? It was a dollar coin cunningly sized like a quarter, but with sort of poker table edges. That beauty gagged coin machines everywhere and managed to trick most of us into spending a dollar for a twenty-five cent item at least once.

"How could this happen," I hear you cry.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing figures that it's done the job by sending out notices, spending millions on an ad campaign and offering educational resources to schools. "You can't blame us," you can hear them shout, "We did everything we could." Maybe.

The vending machine people and store managers are split into three groups. Group number one includes those who thought it wouldn't be a problem. Surprise!! You've just won a bunch of frustrated customers.

Group number two includes those who thought it was somebody else's problem. Their strategy was to just wait until the people responsible fixed things. The vending folks in this group waited for the government. This group includes retail store managers who figured it was up to their boss to sound the alarm and retail store owners who figured that the government will have to do something.

Ehhhhhhh!!! Wrong!!! Now the least you folks can do is put signs on your balky machines and figure out ways to help your customers while you find out what your options are.

At the end of the day the problems here involve awareness and taking responsibility. We know that because some folks got it right.

There are grocery stores and warehouse stores where the automated checkouts happily accept the colorful new twenties. There are vending machines and cash machines that work just fine with the new bills. So it can be done.

Now, please, fix the machine at the supermarket before I do something I'll regret.


[For more of Wally Bock's articles and resources, check out his Web site, www.bockinfo.com]