Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Embarrassment

No matter how often it happens, the inability of many retail clerks to simply make change always strikes me as a telling statement on the pitiful condition of the average American's reasoning abilities. If you can't figure out the simplest of computational problems there isn't much hope that you can figure out much else.

Here are the two latest examples of what has happened on my two most recent attempts to buy lunch:

Today my total bill came to $6.46. I gave the clerk a $10 bill and a penny. I even tried to let her know that I was complicating things with the penny before she keyed my payment into the cash register so that she'd have a chance to avoid the difficult task of figuring this problem out for herself. She got out three $1 bills and two quarters (good so far...) and then started rummaging around in the penny bin. I mentioned that I had given her the penny to avoid getting a wad of pennies, and that I'd rather get a nickel than the five pennies. That prompted her to drop the pennies, dig up a dime and hope for the best. It seemed rather pointless to try to correct her at this point, so I kept the extra five cents as my tip for helping her do her job.

The previous day was an even scarier example. My bill totaled $5.50. I handed the clerk a $10 bill and two quarters. He spent a LOT of time staring at the register, maybe wishing he had keyed in $10.50 rather than just the $10 he had quickly punched in when he saw my bill. One of his helpful co-workers saw the confusion and stepped in to help. The first guy seemed to be trying to figure out how to re-enter my payment so that the register would tell him what to give me, and the other guy told him not to worry about the register, and to just give me my $4.50. As the first guy fumbled around to count out four $1 bills, I mentioned that I'd really rather have a $5 bill, at which point they both pretty much said, "Uh, OK", and handed me a $5 bill.

As a quick reality check I presented the above scenario to my third-grader. He heard the particulars and when I asked what I should have gotten for change he gave a look that clearly meant "Are you kidding me?" and immediately said, "Five dollars."

I realize that I may be a simpleton clerk's nightmare, but I am very patient with them, and I try not to confuse them when there are other customers waiting in line, plus it really doesn't occur to me that I am giving them the functional equivalent of a differential equation to solve.

Still, it never ceases to appall me how often it is so easy to stump someone who should have mastered third-grade math many years ago. I just have to hope that the folks staffing the cash registers are not representative of the average US high school graduate.


wunelle said...

Most companies insist their employees use the register to compute the change--no doubt born of their sad, telling (i.e. money-losing) experience. For many people this making change business might have been the only exercise of these faculties they get in real life.

When I think of all in the mathematical realm that I can't begin to do, I wonder if many educated people look at me in the same way (not that your examples aren't WAY pathetic!).

truist said...

I have to speak in defense of the cashiers here. I'm a fairly intelligent person who is good at many forms of math, including algebra, geometry, many forms of calculus, and making change. But I was once a cashier for a few years, and I had exactly the same problem. I even spent a lot of time asking myself "why do I get so dumb at math while I'm working?" I figured out the answer, but it takes some explanation.

An experienced cashier is a lot like an experienced driver - most of the job is done by muscle memory. Just the same way that you can hold a conversation while driving a car, a cashier can be thinking of something completely different while they're ringing your items, bagging your stuff, and making change. The key point here is that making change is done essentially by muscle memory. If the total is $8.51, and I see a $10-dollar bill, my brain just "looks up" the answer ($1.49) without ever doing any math. I've seen that combination so many times that it's faster and easier to just remember the right amount of change, rather than do the math.

So what often happened is that I'd be humming along, thinking about my girlfriend/homework/tv/whatever, when suddenly the customer would hand me an extra penny. I now have to stop my train of thought, figure out where I am in the check-out process, figure out which numbers are relevant ($8.51 and $10.01), and do the math to figure out what to do. I may already have some amount of change in my hand, also, so I have to figure out what to add or subtract from that, causing a further delay. The whole experience would throw me way off balance, and I'd have a really hard time getting back to calm, rational thought. And yes, it made me look really dumb.

The core issue, at least for me, was not that I couldn't do math well. It's that humans are inherently bad at quick, unexpected context switches, and that's really what that situation is.

Jeffy said...

truist makes a good point - anything that takes you out of your usual rhythm can throw you off your game and make it hard to perform as well as usual.

It would be nice to assume that this is the case with many of the folks who fumble with the task of making change, but I am doubtful.

Karlo said...

I've had the same experience, usually with clerks getted very miffed at me for complicating their lives. I get similar reactions when I go some place and try to use my change. I really don't know what everyone does with their extra change. Do you all just toss it out at the end of every month?

GreenCanary said...

I had a hard time making change until my mother taught me the secret: count UP from the total to the amount they gave you. For instance, the bill is $11.35 and the customer gave me a $20. I then start counting UP from $11.35 until I get to $20. A nickel, a dime, two quarters, a fiver, and three singles. $11.40, $11.50, $12, $17, $20. Once I learned that, making change was easy-peasy.

Jeffy said...

Such little tricks are the key to doing things quickly.

My inclination to pass along a few pennies or a nickel are designed to actually make the process simpler rather than more complicated.

If your bill were $11.37 instead, then I'd pass along a couple of pennies that would have the effect of reducing the bill to $11.35, getting back to the simpler change problem to solve. I might even pass along 37 cents and really make it easy.

Today at lunch I was waited on again my one of the examples mentioned in my original post. When I got the bill for $6.54 I had a strong urge to give the kid 4 pennies and make both our lives simpler, but just didn't have the stomach for the struggle today, and gave him an even $10 and let him do as his computer told him to do.

But, I won't be defeated for long. Eventually the change in my pocket will accumulate to the point were I am once again compelled to start passing it out again.