‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ Merchants squeezing pennies as coins dry up

By Janie Magruder

Calling all piggy banks, pickle jars, plastic baggies and purse bottoms: The federal government needs your accumulated pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.

Spare change, anyone?

The Federal Reserve announced earlier this summer that coins in circulation were growing scarce because people were staying home and spending fewer of them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Banks were closed for a time, as were many businesses — and when they did open, many shoppers preferred using credit cards to avoid touching physical cash.

“With the partial closure of the economy, the flow of coins through the economy, it has gotten all . . . it’s kind of stopped,” Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell testified on Capitol Hill in late June.

“We’ve been aware of it, we’re working with the (U.S.) mint to increase supply, we’re working with the reserve banks to get the supply to where it needs to be.”

The mint has ramped up its coin production and shipments, cranking out nearly 1.6 billion in June and shooting for 1.65 billion monthly for the rest of the year.

The 2019 average was 1 billion per month.

In a July 23 statement, the mint said the economy has an adequate amount of coins, but the slowed pace of circulation meant that sufficient quantities were sometimes not readily available where needed.

And that’s where we come in.

Uncle Sam wants you to start locating, spending, and depositing and exchanging them for currency at banks or coin kiosks. Search between couch cushions and under car seats and empty the decorative liquor decanter (of coins, not liquor) on the mantle.

This will assist retailers which, in Tempe and Chandler, already are helping themselves and seem to be in pretty good shape.

George Walston, manager of Great Harvest Bread Co. in Tempe, said he wasn’t aware of the coin shortage until early July when his local bank said it could only give him one roll of each denomination per day.

When the bakery’s tills grew a little thin, Walston asked his employees to bring in change from home, and they did not disappoint. One worker “brought in his ‘redneck retirement fund,’” and customers offered their baggies of coins to get the store over the hump, he said.

Based on supply, Wells Fargo Bank is providing consumer customers one roll of each denomination per day, said spokesperson LiAna Enriquez. Business customers may receive up to five rolls of each denomination per cash order per day, she said.

“We are actively managing our coin inventory and working with customers to meet their coin needs to the extent possible after the Federal Reserve put limitations on coin deliveries to all financial institutions nationwide,” Enriquez said.

Shoppers at Fry’s Food Stores have been asked to pay with exact change, or with a credit or debit card, or to round up their transactions to the nearest dollar to support The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation, said Pam Giannonatti, Kroger Corporate Affairs Manager – Fry’s Division. The grocer also can load change onto customers’ loyalty cards, and change will be provided when available, she noted.

Coin scarcity hasn’t been a problem at Babbo Italian Eatery, primarily because cash represents less than 5 percent of its business, said Dustin Shockley, catering director and regional manager.

Cash customers at the Tempe location are a good lot anyway, Shockley said, usually telling the cashier to keep the change or dropping it into the receptacle at the register.

Up the street at Dairy Queen on Rural and Elliot roads, the percentage of credit card- to cash-paying customers has dropped from about 60/40 percent pre-pandemic to 70/30 percent currently, said owner Ramesh Parikh.

Given that COVID-19 is highly contagious, customers seem to prefer swiping their credit cards to exchanging money with employees, he said. Parikh said the store is now asking customers to use credit cards, if they can, but when change is due on a cash order, the amount is rounded up to the customers’ benefit.

“We’ve had a few people say, ‘If we’re able to get you our coins, can we have free ice cream?’’ Parikh said. “If you’re able to roll them up instead of dumping all of them into our window, we can talk about it.

“If you bring in five rolls of quarters, that’s probably worth a free cone.”

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