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November 30, 2023  |  Making the change  |  758 hit(s)

Recently I was at a grocery store in our neighborhood that still does a lot of business in cash. As I was waiting, I watched the cashier ring up the customer in front of me. The cashier deftly took the customer’s bill—a $50, I think—and counted out change. When it was my turn, I said “It looks like you’ve been doing this for a while”. “Oh, yes”, she said. “35 years”.

During my college years (1970s), I had a kind of gap year during which I worked for Sears, the once-huge department store. I was hired as a cashier, and the company put us through an extensive training program for the position.

For example, that’s where I learned something that I saw the grocery-store cashier do: when you accept a big bill from a customer, you don’t just stuff it into the tray. You lay it across the tray while you make change. That way, if you make change for a fifty but the customer says, “I gave you a hundred”, you can point at the bill and show that that’s what they’d given you.

Before my time

My cashiering days were at the beginning of the era of computerized cash registers (no big old NCR ka-ching machine for us). Although our register could calculate change, they still taught us how to count out change manually. (One method is to count up from the purchase price to the amount the customer gave you, as you can see in a video.)

We also learned to handle checks, which included phoning to get an approval code for checks over a certain amount. We learned to test American Express travelers checks to see if they were authentic. We learned to handle credit cards, which we processed using a manual imprinting machine that produced a carbon copy of the transaction.

We also learned to be on guard for various scams, such as the quick-change scams that try to confuse the cashier, as you can see in action in the movie Paper Moon.

There was of course lots more—cashing out the register, doing the weekly “hit report” of mis-entered product codes or prices (this was also before UPC scanners), and many other skills associated with being at the point of sale and handling money.

During my son’s college years (late 2000-oughts), he also worked as a cashier, in his case for Target and for Safeway. I quizzed him about his training. He remembered that the loss-prevention people at Target warned them about the quick-change scam, and it even happened to him once while he worked at Safeway.

But he doesn’t remember much training about how to handle change; at a lot of places, coin change is automatically dispensed by machine into a little cup. He does remember learning how to handle checks.

Most of their training, he remembers, was about how to use the POS terminal[1]—how to log in, how to enter or back out transactions, etc. A POS terminal is, after all, a computer—they were being trained in how to manipulate the computer, and less so than in my day about how to handle cash money.

Shortly after I had my grocery-store experience with the experienced cashier, I was in line at a local coffee shop. The customer ahead of me paid in cash. When I got to the counter, I asked the amenable counter person, “This is going to be a sort of weird question, but how much training did they give you in how to handle cash?” “Little to none”, was her report.

And Friend Alan recounted this experience recently on Facebook about a cashier trying to figure out how to even take cash:

It might seem like old-school cashiering skills are becoming anachronistic. It’s not unusual in my experience that small shops and pop-up vendors only take cards, using something like Square. Frankly, I was surprised that the coffee shop with the informative counter person even took cash.

Moreover, we customers are more and more becoming our own cashiers. Many stores nudge customers toward self-checkout kiosks, in part by reducing the number of cashiers so that it’s faster to use the self-checkout.[2] The logical conclusion to this effort is the cashierless store (aka “Just walk out store”), where computers just sense your purchases and charge you.

Still, it’s not like cash is going to go away. Even in the age of debit cards and Venmo, people will still want to use cash for various private transactions.[3] Moreover, not everyone has a bank account, or wants one. Although individual merchants might decide to go card-only, many will still find it to their benefit to take cash.

That probably will continue to include the grocery store where I met the experienced cashier. For the sake of that store, I hope that she is able to pass her experience and training on to other cashiers who work there.


[1] The initialism POS is a good shibboleth. Do you immediately think point of sale? Or do you think part of speech? Or maybe piece of sh*t?

[2] We now fill our own carts, check our own prices, empty the cart at the checkout, scan our items, bag our own stuff, and serve as our own cashiers. Some users (example) therefore find it insulting that we also now have to meekly stop and have security check our receipts and purchases (“I'm not interested in proving that I did your job for you”.)

[3] For the time being, dispensaries in states where pot is legal are usually cash-only businesses because marijuana is still illegal per federal law and credit-card companies don’t want to get involved in that gray area.

Philip M   01 Dec 23 - 10:57 AM

I worked at a grocery store around 2006-2008. They didn't give us any training in how to handle cash beyond how to keep the till organized. Someone pulled off the quick-change scam once. We hadn't been told that that was something to watch out for.

Accepting checks was a pain. We had scanner/printer thing would noisily endorse the check. That machine was seldom used so we didn't get much practice using it.

SNAP/WIC payments were also slow for various reasons.

mike   02 Dec 23 - 8:10 AM

@Philip -- yeah, it's always struck me that express lanes were configured based on the wrong principle. It's not how many items there are (within an order of magnitude, I suppose); it's how complicated the money-exchange transaction is going to be.

I've always yearned for a special lane for people who have straightforward transactions (no exchanges, no cigarettes, etc.), who aren't at the store to socialize, and who are facile with providing cash or using the POS card reader. (In particular, I always marvel at people who seem surprised when the cashier tells them the total and only then decide to start rooting around for their wallet.)

Andrew   10 Dec 23 - 6:17 AM

Interesting! I live in central Mexico, which is still a largely cash-based culture—especially for personal/non-commercial transactions. Although many nicer restaurants might have a card reader, often the default is still cash. And it's not unusual the card reader is "out of order today" (who wants to deal with reporting taxes and paying bank fees on an operation that is scraping by anyway). We pay our rent every month in cash, we pay all our utilities to our landlord in cash. I even pay my son's school tuition in cash—I take out money from the ATM and go into the school accounting office and hand over a wad of pesos. Granted, that one I could do electronically, but it is more complicated and everyone is so used to handling cash that I just do this way as a part of my first-week-of-the-month bill paying spree. I even bought a car in cash. It was an adjustment moving here 10 years ago and having to learn to be comfortable handling wads of cash. And having to always make sure to have small change available for smaller transactions. NO ONE wants to break a large bill and small bills are coveted by neighborhood vendors. Most commercial transactions are electronic these days, but there is no guarantee so we still have to always have at least a little cash on hand just in case.

A couple years ago, during the pandemic, we drove up to Texas to visit and get vaccinations. I still remember going into a coffee shop and ordering something. When told the total, I just automatically pulled out some cash to pay. The person just gave me a long, quizzical look and finally said they actually don't keep cash in the register and I HAD to use a card (or digital) method to pay—there wasn't even the option to use cash. It was culture shock the other direction.

mike   11 Dec 23 - 10:51 AM

Wow, Andrew, great stories. It did make me think that in a cash-forward culture, it has to be easy to get cash in the first place. Like, I probably could not take an amount out of the ATM to cover something like rent or monthly tuition; it would mean going into the bank to withdraw. Which in turn might mean that banks would have to be open at reasonable times.

In the US, of course, cash is the medium of choice for transactions that one doesn't want tracked. More than once I've paid someone in cash to do work on my house, which we can assume was unreported income for them. More generally, private transactions are, I think, still largely in cash. When I sold my motorcycle, I got an impressive wad of bills; there is of course no way I would take a check for something like that. (Venmo has changed this somewhat.)

I have to imagine that card-based transactions can make accounting easier for businesses. Assuming, of course (see previous) that they want to be accounting for the money. :)