Back in December, this blog post by Jesse really hit home. It is about what I have referred to as the “exact change obssession” that you so often run into at the cash registers of Czech stores. Using cash is still the most common way to pay for your shopping in the Czech Republic. Credit cards are not that popular here yet and checks just never made it to this country. You may think that paying by cash is a quick way to conclude a transaction. No waiting for the card to be processed and the bill to be signed, no waiting for the lady ahead of you in line to dig through her purse to find her checkbook and then leisurely fill out a check. When you’re paying by cash, you simply hand over a bill, get your change and off you go. Well, not in this country.
In the Czech Republic, paying by cash can be a complicated business. For a reason that I have not yet figured out, Czech stores seem to be constantly desperate for change. If you use a 1000 CZK bill (roughly 35 EUR/50 USD) to pay for 174 CZK worth of groceries, you will likely put the cash register person in a difficult situation or at least get yourself into an unwanted discussion. If you don’t have 174 crowns, you should at least be decent enough and offer 204. Only someone inconsiderate or grossly unprepared will offer a thousand crown bill. Such a troublemaker will receive a sigh and a question “Nemáte menší?” (Do you have anything smaller?). If you don’t, they’ll plead for at least four crowns.
I was at a drugstore and it was one of those days when all I had in my wallet were a few thousand crown bills that I had just gotten out of the ATM. That’s already bad enough to even enter the store, I thought. Let alone in the morning before the store has been able to collect enough change from the customers. On the other hand, I thought it would be ridiculous for me to just go home without making the purchases I needed to make and to return to the store when I had smaller bills on hand. I don’t remember what my shopping came to but it wasn’t much. Probably a couple hundred crowns. Of course I ran into trouble when I handed over my thousand crown bill. After some discussion and my assurances that it’s really all I have, the cash register woman got up and went into the back of the store to discuss the situation with her colleagues. The line behind me started getting longer and I started feeling like an offender who’s creating trouble for the cash register people, the other customers waiting in line, the whole store… Finally, the lady brought some change and I was rescued. I don’t know where she got it but it is not uncommon for desperate shop employees or their colleagues to search through their own wallets to break a large bill, or to go hunting for change in neighboring shops.
Another situation that “tought me a lesson” happened on a train once. I had bought a ticket for second class but after boarding the train, I found the second class cars to be pretty full, so I decided to move to first class and pay the supplement directly to the conductor. This is a normal thing to do, at least according to the Czech Railways rules of train travel. The supplement came to some 120 CZK and when I handed the conductor my 500 CZK bill, he looked at me like I was crazy and announced that he’s not able to make change because he doesn’t have any. I stared at him, not knowing quite how to react. Do I have to go back to second class then? Do I get to ride on first class for free? Why is this my problem anyway? I want to pay you, I have the money, here you go, please just give me my ticket. I waited for the conductor to solve what I considered to be his problem. All he did was insist that there is nothing he can do and he casually suggested that I go check with some other passengers to see if they can break my “large” bill. Of course I was extremely excited at the idea of bothering complete strangers and asking them for money. I finally understood that there was no other way if I wanted to keep my seat. So I went from compartment to compartment, asking for change, feeling like an idiot. I wondered two things: Why does the conductor have no money on him when one of his jobs is to sell tickets and supplements? And why was it me and not the conductor who had to go look for change?
I have almost become paranoid about having small change whenever I need to buy something. I check my wallet sometimes before going out and get change from Jeff if I think I’ll need it. I carefully plan where I’m going to break my large bills (imagine my concern when all that the ATM spits out are 2000 CZK notes!). I know that it’s good to pay with a large bill at a restaurant and save the change for my evening trip to the grocery store. I try to be good and proactively search through my wallet when paying so that I can come up with the exact amount and earn some gratitude at the cash register.
Cash register employees in the United States have neat little packages of coins stacked next to the register, so they can dump a new set of quarters or dimes or nickles into their little change drawer every time they run out. The customer is not bothered, the employee is free of worries. Why is it that no store owner in the Czech Republic has ever thought of this brilliant solution?
To Jesse: In my opinion, the word “kačka” as in “a crown” comes from the abbreviation “Kč”, which is pronounced as “ká čé”.