In Currency Switch, Minor Hassles Precede Promised Convenience | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.01.2002
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In Currency Switch, Minor Hassles Precede Promised Convenience

Lines outside banks and cash registers, buyers fumbling with mixed change, and some automatic tellers running dry, but otherwise, things go smoothly on the Euro's first big day.


"DM or euro?"

By some estimates, the distribution of euro cash and coins is the largest logistical task in the history of human civilisation.

January 2 being the first workday of the new year, shops opened for the first time and the vast operation began in earnest.

Pocketbooks, wallets and cash registers across the continent filled up with mixed currencies, bringing minor confusion to millions.

Banks seemed the worst hit. Scores lined up outside affiliates in the Netherlands and Germany, trying to change their marks and gilders into Euros.

Beleagured bank tellers tried in vain to tell customers they could use both currencies until Feb. 28. At a Deutsche Bank 24 in Frankfurt, bank staffers eventually just locked the doors, leaving a group to wait in an adjacent anteroom.

"Dear clients, for security reasons, our branch is locked for a short time," read a sign outside the door.

"It makes no logical sense because you can pay with marks or Euros anywhere," a Commerzbank spokesman told Reuters. "And you've got until the end of February, so why stand outside when it's something like 10 degrees below zero?"

Bank tie-ups aside, European Central Bank (ECB) officials said that within a few weeks the euro will achieve ubiquity and inconveniences will give way to new ease of trading in Europe's seamless currency zone, home to 306 million people.

By then, some € 650 billion ($ 588 billion) will have entered circulation and started their gradual journey, migrating hand-to-hand, wallet-to-till, into marketplaces around the world.

So far, just € 134 billion have entered circulation, according to the ECB – approximately half the value of total national banknote circulation in the region at the end of 2001.

Giddiness and consternation

Many European shopkeepers and consumers are eager for the vast process to run its course, as the current mix is proving a hassle.

The initial glee and curiosity with which many Europeans have greeted the new notes and coins will fade before long, as euros lose their novelty.

The unfamiliar banknotes' bright colours and the freshly-minted coins' perfect shine are oddly pleasant – as if the entire economy is somehow new. But charming aesthetics provide little consolation for shoppers stuck in lines, slowed by clumsy, manual currency conversion.

Throughout Germany, the phrase of the day was "DM or euro?" as clerks asked consumers how they wanted to pay and what change they would prefer in return.

Equivalent questions greeted shoppers in the other 11 participating countries.

This negligible delay, along with the waits it causes when repeated ad infinitum at check-out counters, will continue until February 28, the day most national currencies lose their status as legal tender.

In major cities, commuters made unusual pre-work shopping stops near public transport stations, buying small items with national currency but taking change in euro, collecting coins for automatic ticket machines that accept only the new coins.

"This is going to take some getting used to," said a young woman behind the counter of a Berlin pharmacy, wielding a calculator. "I still cannot recognise the denominations."

2 Euro, Münze, Euro

Strange but true

Tales of weird consequences abounded, satisfying the suspicion harboured by many Europeans that this immense undertaking cannot come off without a hitch.

The French department store chain Galeries Lafayette had to reinforce floors at some of its provincial outlets to accommodate the weight of euro coins, much heavier than their franc forerunners, Reuters reported.

Metro, the largest German retailer, had to freight 700 tonnes of the stuff to accommodate anticipated demand.

Rumours of prices rounded up on exchange rates – technically a crime, but difficult in practice to prevent – were so common that some retailers, such as Germany’s Aldi, took out advertisements promising to round down instead.

Automated tellers and even manned bureaux of exchange ran out of euro in all of the countries, but some were better prepared than others. Throughout the euro zone, about 80 percent of automatic tellers were fully loaded with euros and functioning properly, the ECB reported. But Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands led other nations, reaching nearly 100 percent at their cash points.

If the rest of this process – still far from complete – gets carried off with similarly minor hitches, the ECB’s goal of euro-ubiquity wil not be far off.

There is nothing like market pressure to force change, anywhere and everywhere. Even prostitutes in Germany went to work January 1, asking "DM or euro?", according to the Bild tabloid newspaper. Businesses of ill repute like the Sunshine Inn in eastern Berlin rounded down converted prices for "full body massage".

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