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Free drinks, store credit and cries for help: How we're handling the coin shortage

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Covina restaurant chain Taco Nazo is offering a free drink or bag of chips in lieu of change. The restaurants usually sell those items for more than a dollar.

"I'd rather the customer leave with a positive than a negative," said Thelma Garcia, president of Taco Nazo Corp.

Businesses that are especially reliant on coins, such as laundromats and vending machines, face significant challenges. In a recent survey by the Coin Laundry Assn. trade group, about 60% of laundromat owners accepted coins as the only form of payment.

The shortage has started to cause "a little bit of panic," said Brian Wallace, the trade group's president. That's spawned some creative workarounds -- one of the group's Iowa members drove to Nebraska to buy excess quarters from a friend.

Dan Marrazzo, president of Laundry Depot, a network of five laundromats in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, turned to family and friends for help, asking them to bring in extra quarters they had lying around in exchange for paper money.

And they delivered. Quarters quite literally rolled in, sometimes in 5-gallon water jugs that had to be carted in on a hand truck, or in 3-1/2-foot-tall banks shaped like Molson beer bottles. In the last two weeks, he amassed more than $4,000 in quarters.

"If we can't make change, we can't make money," Wallace said. "And neighborhood residents can't get clean clothes."

A "good chunk" of the laundromats' client base are the unbanked or underbanked households in the U.S., he said. "It's easy to say, 'Just use a credit card or just use a debit card.' ... Some people don't have as much choice when it comes to how to pay for things beyond cash that others of us might have."

Some laundromats are also trying to fend off neighboring business owners who come in and use the change machines to get coins for their own businesses.

 

Workers have been told to watch the change machines and make sure they're being used only by patrons, said Brad Steinberg, co-president of PWS-the Laundry Co., which operates three laundromats and distributes laundry equipment. Recently, his South Gate company has seen increased demand by laundromats for installation of mobile pay or credit card options alongside the traditional coin slots.

Vending machine operators have been hit hard by the shortage too.

The majority of vending machines rely on cash transactions. If a machine doesn't have enough change for a bill and the customer doesn't have the right coins, they'll leave, said Eric Dell, senior vice president of external affairs for the National Automatic Merchandising Assn. trade group.

A lost sale becomes even more crucial, considering the toll the pandemic has taken on vending machine use. Many are in workplaces that have become ghost towns as more people stay home.

One failed transaction "really has the potential to really impact future sales," Dell said. If you go to a vending machine and it's not a "user-friendly experience, you're probably not going to go back."

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