Every morning, Angela Hundal makes sure she has Dh15 in her purse before hailing a cab to work. The ride usually costs just Dh13, and if she is pleased with the service, she happily gives the driver a Dh2 tip. But all too often, as she rolls up to her Dubai office, Ms Hundal finds herself tipping regardless of the service. Handing over crisp Dh10 and Dh5 bills, she is typically greeted with the phrase: "No change."
While Ms Hundal says she might not miss that Dh2 at the end of the month, she can't remember the number of the times cab drivers, petrol attendants and cashiers at the supermarket did not have the correct change. "When you start adding up the amounts of change you're not being given - even when it's rightfully owed to you - it amounts to a small fortune," says Ms Hundal, who arrived in the UAE from the UK two years ago. "I find that our city is filled with businesses that simply don't have change."
Indeed, in a land where ATMs dispense nothing lower than Dh100, the big bill is king. The cost of everyday items are typically rounded up or down before your eyes, leaving the coins we have in circulation on the sidelines. While Dh1 might come in handy for a chocolate bar at the office, when was the last time you used a 50, 25 or 10 fils coin? And then there is the tiny copper 1 fils coin with a Bateen whale on it, about half the size of an American cent.
Many consumers feel these coins have become increasingly invisible and irrelevant as legal tender - and the consumer often pays for it. We've all been there. You run into your local supermarket for a snack, and the small bag of crisps and bottle of water come to Dh4.85. After paying with a Dh5 bill, how often will 15 fils appear in your palm? Not often, according to Sean Landreth, a business development manager from Canada. When he arrived in Dubai two months ago, he was made aware of this problem by his sister, who currently works as a teacher in Abu Dhabi.
"She gave me the heads up after being here for a couple weeks," Mr Landreth, 27, says. "She said it happens to her all the time, and now she insists on having the correct change out of principle." Mr Landreth struggles to recall a trip to the store where he has been given the correct amount of change. "It could happen a couple of times in a day, and just depends on the amount of times I am in a situation of receiving change or even in the mindframe to notice," he explains.
He says that the main issue is not that customers need the money. It is that cashiers, cab drivers and other merchants seem to overlook the change that is due. These small oversights can add up to sizeable sums of money. Say, for example, you've run in to pick up a last ingredient for a dinner and it costs you Dh2.25. The cashier returns Dh2 to your hand and says: "Sorry, don't have 25 fils." You let it go because you are in a hurry.
However, suppose that same grocery store has 1,000 other customers who don't receive their 25 fils. Daily, that comes to Dh250. Yearly, that's Dh91,250, simply because they didn't have the correct amount of change for customers. Individually, if you are short-changed 25 fils every day, you lose out on about Dh90 every year. Mr Landreth points out that, at times, he feels rude for asking for his change back and doesn't like to press the point.
"I just hope it is not a mandate by the business for the cashiers to short-change customers," he says. Jannine Holtzhausen, the chief executive of Spinneys in Dubai, says the company's policy is quite the opposite. Not only should customers always receive the right amount of change, but when it's not available the cashier should always round up to the nearest dirham. "There was a time when change was a serious problem, but it seems to be getting a little better," Mr Holtzhausen says. "You couldn't get enough change from the Central Bank. I haven't checked up on it in a couple of months."
The UAE Central Bank did not return calls for comment. Mr Holtzhausen says that one solution to the problem would be to eliminate the smaller coins and do some sort of rounding system. But the problem, he says, is there are plenty of items in Spinney's that are weighed. If you sell grapes for Dh10 per kilogram and you buy 6.25 kilograms, inevitably you will not be dealing with round numbers. Rowena, who works as a customer service assistant at a Spinneys in Abu Dhabi, says having the right amount of coins in the cash register is an issue.
"The bank gives us rolls of coins and we start our shifts with enough money to give change back to customers," says Rowena, who preferred to keep her last name anonymous. "But by the end of the shift we also don't get the small 10 fils and 5 fils coins from customers, so we are forced to explain we don't have the right change." Georges Mojica, the general manager of Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society, insists his stores are always precise with the change owed to customers. But he admits the smaller coins have a way of getting lost in the shuffle.
"People have a tendency to disregard the smaller change, especially in times of inflation," Mr Mojica says. "I mean, who cares about 1 fils?" He says that if the correct change is not available, like Spinney's, they will round up and give the customer more money rather than less. But in Mr Landreth's experience, he finds the trip to the supermarket rarely results in more dirhams in his pocket. "That hasn't been my experience at any grocery store," he says.
Carol Talbot, a training and development consultant with Matrix Training Solutions in Dubai, says it is not unusual for her to receive a sweet or piece of candy from cashiers instead of change. "Some supermarkets in Dubai give you a sweet because they don't like to give you the smaller coins," she says. "I've been noticing that more in the last few years." Ms Talbot, who arrived in the UAE nearly 20 years ago from the UK, says all of the UAE coins, apart from the Dh1, are now largely irrelevant. She says that decades ago, when prices were cheaper and bargaining was more common, the one fils, 10 fils and 50 fils coins were used frequently and exchanged between customers and vendors.
"Change mattered more in the past," she says. "Even then, 50 fils made a difference. These coins don't really buy anything anymore." Now, instead of using these coins at the store, she keeps them piled in her car's ashtray. "So if someone cleans my windscreen at the petrol station, I'll give them a handful of coins," she says. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org With additional reporting from Katie Stevens