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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?