The coins-on-top method. Coins slip-sliding around on top of the paper bills.

It seems like over the past several years, every cashier in the world has decided — or has been told by their bosses — to hand customers their change by first placing the paper bills in the customer’s hand, then placing the coins on top of the paper bills.

Inevitably, each customer is then required to fumble around with this little money stack, using both hands, in order to (a) get a grip on the coins (which are essentially sliding around on top of the papers) and (b) to remove the paper money and put it back in your wallet without spilling the coins. With the old coins-on-the-bottom method, the paper is right there for grabbing and putting in your wallet while the coins are sitting right there in your palm, touching your skin.

To me, it’s glaringly obvious that the coins-on-the-bottom method is preferable, but I am reminded of the classic toilet paper debate (roll over from the top versus roll under from below) in which both sides think they are absolutely right. I’m an over-the-top person myself, but I won’t debate it because ultimately I think there are some usability issues that boil down to some kind of “taste” in user experience. (Besides, some of my favorite people in the world are under-the-bottom people. I figure if you change the roll at all, you have the right to decide!)

(This is a great topic for a future usability discussion: if a huge number, even a majority, of users prefer a interface that is empirically and demonstrably, but ultimately trivially, less efficient than another interface design, is it okay to go with the user-preferred, less-efficient design?)

The question that I wanted to answer, then is this: Is the coins-on-top trend a usability-taste thing, not attributable to any particular rational decision? Or is something else happening here, something deliberate?

How it used to be


The coins-on-the-bottom method. Coins snugly nestled in your palm, paper bills readily graspable.

I remember not too many years ago when a great number of cashiers would actually count the change back to you as they placed it in your hands. For example, if you bought an item costing $2.59, and handed the cashier a ten-dollar bill, you would receive your $7.41 in change with a little friendly and helpful explanation: When you hand your money to the cashier, she says “Out of ten”, assuring you that she looked at what kind of bill you handed her. Then as the cashier drops the coins in your hand, she says “Here’s three…” or “Forty-one cents makes three…; when she places the two one-dollar bills in your hand, she counts them out, “Four, five”; and finally placing the five-dollar bill in your hand she says “and five makes ten!”

After this routine, both you and the cashier are crystal clear about what happened. Your coins are firmly in the pocket of your palm, and the bills are ready to be gripped and shoved back into your wallet.

Why did they switch?

I have several theories as to why cashiers switched to the coins-on-top method. Another question is whether this switch was actually done deliberately (that is, that over the last few years, most retailers made a conscious decision to tell their staff to do it this way) because of recent research or insights within the retail industry, or if it’s the result of natural behavioral evolution in American society, or both. I suspect it’s a little of both.

My actual theories fall into two areas: customer-driven, in which the decision is the result of a perceived understanding of customer preferences and behavior, and store-driven, in which the decision was either made by the store’s managers based on making the business more efficient or by the cashiers themselves to make their job easier. Note that I don’t think many of these theories are valid, but I suspect that someone in the retail industry does.

Customer Driven

  1. Customers like to see all of their money in a way that clearly shows the total amount at a glance. With the coins under the paper, they cannot visually count their change.
  2. When dropping coins in a customer’s hand, there is a risk that the coins will fall through the customer’s fingers, especially if the cashier is absent-minded and careless (see below). Customers complain a lot when this happens.
  3. In today’s increasingly anonymous society, people hate to be touched by other human beings or strangers. When a cashier places coins in a customer’s hand, it can involve some skin-to-skin contact. The customer may feel uncomfortable. It’s sad, I know.


  1. It’s natural for a cashier to think of the change in this sequence because that’s how money is written: Dollars first, then cents. $7.41 is (1) seven dollars in bills and (2) forty-one cents in coins.
  2. Contemporary cash registers may even have some kind of feature where they inform the cashiers what change to give, and this information may sequentially place the bills first, coins second.
  3. Cashiers (and indeed all Americans) are increasingly incompetant at math, and they tend to be younger, more apathetic, and less attentive than ever, so counting out the money in the old style is demanding way too much attention and skill.
  4. Cashiers need to move quickly, so any method that involves additional interaction with the customer is a waste of time. As long as the customer has the change in their hand, the cashier’s job is done as far as the store is concerned.

To me, almost none of these reasons justify the added burdens the coins-on-top method puts on customers. Could there be another reason I’m not thinking of? Does anyone actually prefer the coins-on-top method?


23 responses to “Retail Change Management”

  1. I prefer — greatly prefer — the coins-on-bottom method for all the reasons you’ve given. It’s just logistically easier to get my money back where I keep it in my pants (I have my little system, see below). I especially like the change to be counted back to me and I’ve noticed that many retailers still do this.

    I worked in retail years ago and my manager at the time told me exactly how to take money and return change. 1st, you should always keep the bill you were given by the customer on top of the cash register until the transaction is complete so if there’s any question, you have the bill handy (I’m amazed how many cashiers don’t do this simple thing). Then he told me to always count the change back, “3.49 out of 10, 51 cents 4, and 1 is 5 and 5 is 10.” All good retailers (and most delis I’ve found do it this way).

    Perhaps you can look into the different systems of organization people use for their things? Men are probably easier to deal with since we almost all wear pants with 4 pockets.

    Here’s my pants organization system:

    front left: small bills and change only
    front right: keys and lighter only
    back left: miscellanious — usually receipts
    back right: wallet

    Of couse, this is all based on me being right-handed 🙂

  2. Tim, I’ll bet that as you shop around over the next few days you will not see as many people doing the counting thing as you might think. I don’t think I’ve seen one cashier out of a hundred who does it. The Korean lunch delis are great about counting change, though — some cashiers are so fast that they have your change ready for you before you even open your wallet. Still, I think they generally still dump the money in your hand bills-first.

  3. Coins-on-bottom is the only usable way of handling change exchange, but I can confirm it is a worldwide (or Western world wide anyway) phenomenon; here in the UK you always end up with a couple of notes and a pile of coins on top.

    The problem is compounded by the fact that you’ll also be handed a receipt, which will rarely need to be placed in the same place as the notes; so you have to transfer the receipt to your mouth, swap hands with the notes to remove your wallet, open your wallet with one hand to put the notes away, swap hands again to put the coins in a relevant pocket, and finally remove the soggy receipt from your mouth to put it back in the bag the impatient cashier is now holding out for you to take.

    I think the “less mathematical ability” argument is the strongest, perhaps combined with a shift in the way subtraction is taught in school.

  4. I’d like to give an informed opinion as I perform cashier duties at my store from time to time. In the old days we used to have very old machines that did not display the change. The cashier had to do the math. Iis easiest to count from the smallest denomination (Change) to the highest (Bills) for example:

    the total is 13.24, customer hands you a 20 dollar bill – the cashier counts from right to left (+6 cents makes $13.30, +70 cents makes $14.00, +6 Dollars makes $20) the change is arrived at: $6.76.

    When counting like this it makes sense for the cashier to hand the change first, rounding out the dollar amount, then hand the bills.

    This was good for the cashier as it helped keep track of counting, it was good for the customer as it is a courteous way of handing over the change. And when you count outloud, if the customer is paying attention they know exactly how much money they;re getting and why.

    Now we have new machines. For a new cashier who never used the old machines, it is their insinct (like anyone in western culture) to count the change from left to right (Bills then Change). When speaking out the amount of change the cashier hands you your change in the left-to-right mode of thought “here is your 6 dollars, here is your .76 cents”)

    Personally I stick to the old way out of courtesy for the customer. Also, I hate hate when I get change over bills. I carry a money clip, not a wallet which makes it that much more of a pain in the ass to sort all my money away, especially a receipt.

    That’s my two cents (I’m sorry I know that was corny)

  5. When I worked retail in high school, I’d first hand the customer the coins, and they’d have a chance to deal with them. Then I’d hand them the bills, then they got the receipt and a thank you.

    The “user experience” of 95% of my retail transactions in NYC is a complete trainwreck. I’d guess it’s most likely because the cashiers just really haven’t ever given it any thought.

  6. I would have to say that this issue is really symptomatic of modern cash registers. If the cashier correctly counts your change back, it is only natural to start with the coins, then continue by placing the bills on top – the correct/usable way of doing it. Because cash registers tell the cashier what change to return, there is no consideration… I’ve watched cashiers consciously hold the bills at the tip, drop the coins on top, and hand it to me that way – no palm was involved in the transaction. I was always taught to count the change regardless of the cash register, you may grab the wrong bills (or extra bills!), etc., and counting saves those mistakes.

  7. The fast-food chain Wendy’s has a great checkout experience. In addition to having a single line for multiple registers instead of multiple ambiguous lines (another bad retail user experience mystery to me: why do any stores still have multiple lines at multiple registers? the “form a single line” method is patently better), they have a person with a PDA to take your order as you wait in line. The PDA beams the order to the register people, who then fulfill the order, take your cash, and deliver your change. Here’s where it gets interesting: the cashier only hands you bills — a machine delivers your coin change to you through a little chute into a little tray.

  8. Matt, I wish I thought of that “two cents” line. I would have used it in the post’s title. That’s how corny I am.

  9. Really, I think it has nothing to do with usability and everything to do with a more germ-conscious society. The hand-to-hand contact involved in method A is often not preferable to the people handing out the change because of the possibility of the passage of germs. I believe that the surgeon general issued some sort of warning during my childhood (80s) that brought the issue to the fore. Money has always been thought to be dirty (and I mean that literally).

    When I waited tables at a restaurant in college, I was taught to hand out change using method B. The mother of the restaurant’s owner was also a state health inspector, and using method b was preferable in preventing outside germs reaching the kitchen. By using method B you can more often complete the transaction without ever coming in physical contact with the customer.

  10. Can you call it germ-consciousness if the fear isn’t justified? Employees of restaurants touch doorknobs, flatware, dishes, and countless other items that strangers have touched all day long. A split second of touching another person’s hand with the tips of one’s finger while delivering money, even if you do it a hundred times a day, can’t be that dangerous that it warrants treating the customer like a leper.

    In any event, anyone who actually prepares food should wash their hands frequently. Waiters should wash their hands several times during their shift, whether or not they physically touched any of their apparently much-feared customers. As you’ve said, it’s the money that’s dirty, not the person you’re delivering change to, so handing them money coins-on-top doesn’t help there anyway. And, finally, one can easily drop coins into an open hand without touching that hand one really wanted to.

    Frankly, I think the “don’t touch other human hands” rationale for the coins-on-top method is simply not reasonable. It’s more likely just a rationalization or excuse for skipping all ceremony just dumping the money in the customers hand in order to avoid chitchat and to make the business seem to run faster. Plus, it enables society’s increasing trend of fearing basic social interactions with one another, especially with strangers. As I’ve said above, I think it’s sad.

  11. When I’m paying I always open my wallets coin pocket while I wait for the change. If I’m given the coins first, I can easily slide them inside, close the pocket and insert the bills. Its perfectly simple.

    The coin-in-hand-and-bills-on-top is ok, too. You still handle it one-handed – coins first while holding the bills between two of your fingers. You can’t do that with coins.

    And when you place coins ontop the paper they just slide off. Especially on those new Euro bills which !

    Even if the cashier has to do the Math on his own, he could still count the money into his own hands and hand it to me afterwards, couldn’t he?

  12. Josie Ann Avatar
    Josie Ann

    I had to pipe in on this just because I have another reason to put the change on top… I work in fast food, and we don’t train employees a specific way to hand customers money, but I’ve always handed money back bills, then change on top. The reason for this is simple: I worked in drive-thru the majority of the time, and when handing money back wind is always a pretty big concern. Placing change in the hand on top of dollars helps hold the bills down so there’s less of a risk of the money blowing away. While this habit isn’t relevant to transactions taking place where there’s no wind… it tends to become a habit.

    Though that’s an interesting topic. I never really thought about it this way… Of course, I usually just shove money–change and all–in a wallet crumpled up and organize it later.

  13. I don’t buy the wind excuse, either. It takes two hands to manage a handful of money with coins on top, and at a drive through customers are most likely using one hand. It only takes one hand to manipulate the money with the coins on the bottom, and i doubt there’s a customer alive who you could hand bills to who won’t attempt to grab those bills once you hand them to them. If the wind ever blows a customer’s bills away, it will have nothing to do with whether or not the bills were above or below the coins. And unless you’re using Spanish dubloons as coins, I doubt the weight of any stack of coins will prevent any substantial wind from blowing away bills.

    Again, I think you’re rationalizing a bad habit, a habit that is ultimately just bad customer service. It’s clear that you’re not handing back the change in the old-fashioned style, counting it back to them in detail. You’re just reading what’s on the screen and giving that amount as a big chunk to the customer.

  14. Oh, man. I hate coins-on-the-top, too. When I worked as a cashier, I used to give my customers coins on the bottom because that’s what I would have wanted, but since so many people were expecting to get coins on the top, I think my attempt to help sometimes just made it more frustrating for them. If they were expecting to be handed the bills first and I handed them coins instead, they would look at me strangely, like, “Where’s the rest of my change?” while I was still getting the bills out of the drawer.

  15. I have to say, in my experiance, the notes first option is my preferred way to hand back change.

    But I think this could be because where I come from, Australia, we have plastic notes that, once folded, never sit flat. So putting the note down first enables me to load it with coins to stop it bouncing out of the recipients hand.

    Hmmm. Interesting that no one mentioned “the scrunched up note bouncing out of hand syndrome.”

  16. THANK YOU for ranting about this, it irritates the heck out of me every time somebody does this “receipt, bills, coins in a pyramid” trick. Anybody who is holding open a pocketbook or wallet cannot possibly deal with change one-handed if it’s given this way.

    I once asked a cashier at the Wal-Mart whether they were trained to do this and she said, yes, they were required to hand the change back that way. I asked whether anybody else complained about it and she said no, nobody else cares. (They also claim nobody but me complains about the monitors hanging from the cieling blaring advertisements every minute of the day, but that’s another rant…)

    If people would complain about it they would probably quit doing it.

  17. Dan Ridley Avatar
    Dan Ridley

    I prefer the rare “fold coins into the bills” technique (a single fold, with the coins resting on the crease). It allows you to take the change one-handed; step aside (or pull the car forward) to allow the next person in line to begin their transaction, then flip open the bills, dump the coins, and insert the bill into your wallet/glovebox still one handed.

  18. normal people Avatar
    normal people

    wtf mate?

  19. The idiocy!!!!! Dumping the coins atop the paper money!!!

    At the drive-through fast-food joints it is so easy for the coins to slide off onto the ground, requiring the driver to exit the vehicle to retrieve the dropped change. And, so often, the vehicle needs to be moved to allow the driver to open the door allowing an exit.

    Doing that usually results in the car behind to move ahead, often atop the dropped coins.

    Placing the coins in the hand first allows one to use the fingers to grasp the bills. This is always handy but especially so at the fore-mentioned drive-through window when the wind is blowing, attempting to wrench the bills from your paw.

    I often specifically request the change giver to give me the coins first. Interestingly, my request is often ignored and/or I receive odd looks and/or comments about my request.

    At times I explain the rationale for my request. When the change giver is a female I often notice a certain amount of exasperation and/or bewilderment displayed by the addle-minded illogical self-centered female.

    These experiences were one of several experiences that led to the creation of the Females as Property Movement.

    Silly wenches.

    I also wonder about the capabilities of management of outlets and entire firms where their employees are not trained to give the customer’s change in a coins first manner.

  20. @Obbop Without going too deeply into the sad and demented pre-pubescent world inside your head, let me just point out that this behavior is not a matter of individual decision, but rather a matter of company policy. Policies almost certainly set by men.

    Also, I request that you remove my image from your blog. Thank you.

  21. Hi,

    I was searching for an image to include in a poll about this very topic. I borrowed the one you have posted above. I hope you’ll allow me to use it in my Facebook poll because I feel very strongly about this — I agree with you 10,000%. Bills first is absolutely one of my top pet peeves. Those who return my change in this matter annoy the bejeezus outta me. If you’d prefer I didn’t use this image, please just let me know and I’ll remove it. In any case, THANK YOU for articulating this!

  22. For any of you that care, this is why the coin on top has come about. In the old days, the registers did not tell a cashier how much change to make. They just gave the amount of the sale. Hence each and every cashier was trained how to count money back to the customer in order to get the change correct. Now days the registers / computers will not allow the cashier to ring up the sale unless they put in the amount the customer has given them. The cashier then tells the cashier how much to give back. So, when the cashier counts out the change they do it in the normal fashion. 4 dollars and 54 cents. dollars first change second. They also give it out that way. When you find a person that does it the opposite way it is because he or she has been taught how to count back the change regardless of what the computer or cash register has told them to give back. In order to hire cheaper labor they have replaced the brains with computers.