Why do shopkeepers in Rome never seem to have any change?

For a country in which such a large number of small, independent businesses are not yet able (or willing) to take payment by credit or debit card, it seems paradoxical that so many of these cash-only businesses always ask their customers to pay the exact amount in bills and coins.

Throughout Rome when you go to pay cash in independent bars and shops you will hear “Ha spicci?” (ah SPEE-chee? – Have you got any loose change?) and if not you’ll often hear “non ho il resto” (I don’t have change), and sometimes even see the waiter or shopkeeper dive into their own wallet to try to break a €10 or a €20 bill, or run over the street to the local bar to see if they can break it down.

Heaven forbid you try to pay for a coffee or a pack of gum with a €50 bill – the sight of which often leads to panicked glares and hands thrown into the air in a gesture of despair.

It’s not just small stores that do this: a few years ago waiting at the cash register in a branch of the international supermarket chain Lidl in north Rome, the clerk ran up my goods to the value of €12. I handed over a €20. “Non ha spicci?” asked the clerk irritably.

This had already happened to me several times already that day, and I got a little belligerent.

No! Sono un cliente – ma voi siete un supermercato.” (No! I’m a customer – but you’re a supermarket!)

Quick as a flash, the clerk replied: “Sì, siamo un supermercato, non siamo una banca!” (Yeah, we’re a supermarket, we’re not a bank!)

That put me in my place. In the end I produced a debit card to pay.

Curious about this peculiarly Italian phenomenon, I’ve spent the last few years asking people in bars and shops why this situation exists in Italy, and have received a number of varying answers, that I will summarize here. I suggest that the final reason is the true answer.

Cash floats are not common in Italy

A few months ago at around 7 am I was the first customer at a butcher’s stall in my local market. My purchase of fine beef straccetti came to €7.50. I presented a €10 bill and the storekeeper’s face fell. “Non ha spicci?” I didn’t. He checked his wallet, his pockets, everything, but he simply could not provide change for me. He tried to get me to buy more stuff up to the value of €10, but I wanted to get breakfast too that morning, so I had to refuse. In the end I shrugged, smiled, and took my custom elsewhere.

I was bemused by the paradox of this situation, in the kind of way you only tend to get in Rome: how on earth, I asked myself, could a market trader with no card reader possibly start the day with absolutely no cash on him at all?

In general, how on earth can cash-only shopkeepers fail in one of the major parts of running their business, which is to facilitate the only kind of transactions they can perform?

Having worked retail in other countries when younger, one of the obligatory things we did when opening up every morning was to bring a ‘float’ of bills and coins with us that would allow us to break down at least €100, sometimes €200, in many different ways.

Though the concept of a float – un fondo cassa – does exist, actually bringing one – or at least an effective one – into the business at the beginning of trading seems not to be a habit in many retail places in Italy. Many retailers rely on their customers to help them build up a collection of bills and coins during the day, which then appears to be banked (or put into secure storage) in the evening, to start the next morning with a clean slate – and an empty register. Reasons I have been given for this include:

Retailers are worried about security

The number one answer about floats seems to center around security concerns. Shopkeepers are worried that having “large” amounts of cash on the premises, or worse carrying a known amount of cash with them every morning and evening, makes them and their establishment a target for petty theft.

This is also observable in supermarkets, where every few minutes staff are seen obsessively bundling euro bills into vacuum tubes to be stored in the safe. This of course happens in other countries, but does not seem to happen with such frequency as it does in Italy.

Owners don’t trust their employees (that much)

In the retail world it’s all too easy for staff to pilfer cash, but the issue of lack of industry-vertical trust does seem to be greater in Italy than in other countries: for example, my local gelateria does not allow any of its staff to operate the cash register other than the owner. If the owner is out of the store or in the bathroom, then you’ll just have to wait for them.

Of course this isn’t true for the majority of businesses, but it is one reason that’s been proffered to me for not starting the day with a viable float.

Coins are difficult to deal with

The euro currency has relatively high-denomination coins compared to other countries: a €2 coin was worth $2.35 at the time of writing. People tend to accumulate a lot of coinage on their person. Someone who wants to create a workable float will have to carry a lot of coins.

However the weight and bulk excuse is much less of an understandable one when we consider that in most of the other euro-based countries in the EU this does not seem to constitute an issue.

However, there is an added excuse that does appear to be a valid one, that applies to Italy and not that many other places:

Banks and post offices in Italy are very slow

Whereas in Ireland or France a shopkeeper may be able to walk into a bank or post office, line up for 5 minutes, then break down their €50s and €20s into a pile of €10s, €5s and coins, this is not the case in Italy. Or at least doing so is in no way straightforward.

Naturally a cash-based banking transaction will need to be performed face-to-face, but bank branches are usually open at odd hours that are incompatible with retail businesses (one branch near me is open from 8.30 am – 1.30 pm, then 2.25 pm – 3.45 pm).

Secondly there is almost always a long wait – 30 minutes or even over an hour – to see anyone in a bank.

Thirdly, with most banks you can only perform coin-based transactions in your own branch (not even a different branch of your own bank). And fourthly some banks just no longer wish to deal with large coin-based transactions.

It’s tradition to ask for change

Sometimes when I get asked if I have the exact money in a supermarket, when the cash register opens to reveal that the drawer is in fact overflowing with cash of all denominations. I had been asked this question for no other reason than “that’s what you have to ask if you work in retail”.

This seems to be a hangover from the Italian coin supply crisis that affected the lira in the 1970s which ground businesses across the country to a halt, leading to total chaos, with businesses unable to complete transactions, the independent banks having to print unofficial paper money to substitute coins, promissory notes being issued by establishments and people, bartering becoming widespread, and candy, bus tickets, telephone tokens, and even slices of meat being given as change instead of coins.

It’s likely that older shopkeepers remember this and are therefore extremely protective of their cash, and they’ve handed the habit down to younger employees. It’s become ingrained in the culture despite there being no shortage of euro coins – particularly not because they’re minted all over Europe and are not reliant on a single country to supply them.

Furthermore since lack of change never seems to be an issue in Chinese- or Bangladeshi-run stores, this hints most strongly at the habit being culturally ingrained. Of all the reasons given to me, this seems to be the most likely: Italy runs on tradition, whether that tradition today makes sense or not.

So what should a visitor do about the cash situation?

You are likely to be faced with a cash-poor situation at least once in your visit. For this reason it’s advisable to carry as much small-denomination cash with you as you can (though not large amounts).

  • Keep your change! Rather than fill a bowl in the hotel with coins at the end of the day, keep as many of them as you can in your pocket or pocketbook – making sure that you take precautions against theft.
  • When using an ATM, request amounts in multiples of €20s so that you’re not landed with too many difficult-to-break €50 bills.
  • Use a bank card to pay for stuff wherever you possibly can.
  • Use coins sparingly to save up for a “non ha spicci?” situation – though a 50c or euro coin left on the table is always appreciated as una mancia (a tip) despite Italy not being a predominant tipping culture.
  • Sometimes you may have to put the responsibility for having change back on the shopkeeper. It’s their business after all, and usually they who will lose out if they don’t let you buy what you want to.

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Photo credit: AFP

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