Sunday, October 31, 2021

Is it wrong for a store to keep the change because of its policy?

Is it OK for a merchant not to return change to a customer by claiming: “We don’t do change?” And chalking it up to a coin shortage.

There’s a growing perception that there is a “coin shortage” in the United States. But the Federal Reserve assures people that there’s no shortage, but instead a problem with the circulation of coins. In other words, the coins are out there, but apparently they are just not getting into the hands of merchants seeking to make change for a customers’ purchases.

Whether it’s a shortage or a problem, is it OK for a merchant to expect customers to use a credit card or use exact change if they pay in cash, or forego their change if they don’t do either?

Recently, a neighborhood social media site in the Northeast lit up after a user posted about his experience at a local package store, which is a euphemism for a liquor stores still used in some parts of the country. The poster was incensed after his purchase of wine was rung up and the cashier bagged it and said, “Thanks, you’re all set.” When pressed, the cashier explained the store doesn’t do change because of the “coin shortage.” The poster was incensed and expressed dissatisfaction to the cashier. She left and told her spouse about what happened. The spouse returned to the store later that week, had words with the owner who ultimately gave him the change along with a snarky comment about being sorry for all the pennies he had been shorted over the years.

What’s the right thing here? Is it right for the customer to expect change on a cash purchase? Or is it OK for a merchant to enact a no-change policy?

As might be expected, the responders to the post had all sorts of suggestions about how to get back at the merchant: Pay entirely in pennies! Pay just short of what’s owed and tell them you’ll give them the rest when the shortage is over! Others scolded the poster for whining about being shorted a few cents. Another suggested the poster do something positive like suggesting the merchant start an extra change plate so customers can take what they need and leave what they want for others to use.

Lawyers will likely have an opinion on the legality of not providing change, but as I’ve written many times, I am neither a lawyer nor a psychotherapist nor a neighborhood website administrator.

The right thing if the merchant truly is having an issue getting hold of enough available change is to post clearly that the store has an exact change policy. The cashier should be instructed to repeat that policy before an order is rung up if for some reason the customers don’t see the postings. Customers can then decide if they want to make the purchase or not. But all of this should happen before the purchase is made, not after.

Customers don’t have to like the policy. But then they don’t have to continue shopping at any store where exact change is required if they don’t want to.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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