Jul 12, 2010

Change hoarders

Here's an anecdote that anyone living in China longer than a week will relate to.

We were browsing around at the upscale Shin Kong Place mall in Beijing over the weekend. We noticed a small coffee bar (I think it was called "Red Cuppa"), which had about six tables for customers in its seating area. In addition espresso, they were selling some pastries and gelato. We picked out two flavors for a medium cup to go, and the bill came to 23 yuan ($3.40).

The coffee shop had two employees helping us: one young man behind the counter, scooping the ice cream and tallying the bill, as well as a young girl — a trainee — who was on our side of the counter next to us. The trainee mostly hovered around and stared at us. She looked excited and bored at the same time. I'm sure everyone can relate to the frustration of being a new employee and trying hard to contribute.

After we ordered, I pulled out my fat money clip to pay the bill, and started flipping through my money to find some change. (My money clip is fat because I stuff the middle with lots of 1 yuan notes.) I always try to keep some 10s and 20s in my money wad for the cabbies, for those quick trips around town. I once saw a Beijing cabbie pull a tire iron out of his trunk and chase down another guy, and for all I know, that could have been because the customer tried to pay for a 10 kuai ride with a 100 kuai note.

My money clip had some 1s, some 20s, a 50, and lots of 100s. I pulled out a 50 and three 1s, so that the cashier could give me a 20 and a 10 for change.

It turns out that while I had been rifling through my money, the hovering salesgirl had been watching my every move like a hawk. As discreet as I tried to be when looking through my cash, she had inventoried the full contents of my money clip. As soon as I pulled out the 50 yuan note, she exclaimed loudly, "Hey, I seen a 20 in there. Just give us that 20."

I turned to face the male cashier, gave him a polite smile, and continued to pay with my 50 yuan note. I think he was embarrassed by his trainee. Clearly, she had spent previous time working at a local market bartering with customers over 1 and 2 kuai trinkets, where asking for exact change is the norm. The cashier gave me my expected change, and we were on our way.

I think that when you're paying triple-price for Chinese gelato, customers are allowed to pay for their purchases with whatever bills they want. If you run a cash-based, retail business, it's part of your job to visit the bank every day, or however often it takes, to make sure you've got plenty of change on hand. I've noticed this change-hoarding mentality more and more lately, even at places like KFC, where you know they have tons and tons of cash.

If you're in China, make a point of paying for all retail and food purchases with 100 kuai bills, and see how often they give you guff about not having proper ling qian.

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