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Few problems reported first business day of euro change

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2002

BERLIN -- Cashiers across Europe were on the front lines of the largest currency changeover in history Wednesday, taking on the central role of getting old money out of circulation and new euros into the pockets of consumers.

At the Kaufland supermarket chain in Berlin, cashier Isabell Schosstag greeted every customer with the same question: ''Will you be paying in euros or Deutsche marks?''

The question was echoed in other languages, about other currencies, across the 12-nation euro zone on the first full day of business since the bills and coins were introduced Jan. 1.

Minor glitches aside, concerns that the transition would evoke ''euro-rage'' from frustrated consumers appeared unfounded.

Schosstag said weeks of reading about the euro and its security features -- and even several days of ''euro-school'' -- gave her confidence. Yet she took special care when counting the change back to customers, laying each coin out deliberately.

''It's a little slower because you have to concentrate more, and you also have to make double sure of the change you're giving, but nobody's asking any questions,'' Schosstag said.

About a third of Schosstag's customers paid in the new currency, a third in the Deutsche mark, and a third with their debit cards. The store had boosted the number of cashiers by a third to prevent long lines.

''I brought a bunch of my old change and had no problems,'' said Karin Krebs, who paid for groceries with a handful of mark coins she wanted to get rid of. ''I have euros at home, though.''

Krebs' experience is just what European Central Bank officials have been hoping for. The bank intends to vacuum most of the old currencies from circulation within two weeks by asking retailers to give euros as change and by having ATMs dispense only the new bills.

Still, in many places, to spare confusion, clerks were giving change in the outgoing currencies if customers paid in them.

After the first day of the changeover, 80 percent of the euro zone's 200,000 ATMs were dispensing euros, with the figure reaching 100 percent in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Demand for money from the machines reached four times the daily average on Jan. 1, the European Central Bank said.

''The euro cash changeover is going smoothly, even better than we had expected,'' the bank's Eugenio Domingo Solans said.

As of midday, the euro had surged in value from 88 U.S. cents to more than 90 U.S. cents, largely because the successful changeover has created a sense of confidence, said market analyst Dorothea Huttanus, of DZ Bank.

There were, however, some hitches reported in almost all countries.

Traffic backed up on toll booths outside Athens, Greece, on highways in Italy and on the main bridge into Lisbon, Portugal as drivers tried to get euros as change from attendants. Authorities appealed to drivers to use exact change.

Lines were longer than usual at some banks and post offices. In Naples, Italy, police were called when retirees waiting for their first euro pensions got unruly. To help foster acceptance of the new currency, Greek Premier Costas Simitis visited five banks in Athens and asked customers to show patience.

Bank unions in France and Italy tried to stage strikes but drew little support and caused only minor disruptions.

In Ireland, many complained that some pubs were already rejecting old Irish coins because two sets of change was proving too burdensome.

Officials warned shoppers to beware of salespeople giving incorrect change. But the difficulty of the new conversions was evident when reporters asked Portuguese Finance Minister Guilherme Oliveira Martins to give the escudo equivalent of 100 euros.

''That's ... er ... well, it's going to take some time to get used to it all,'' he replied.

Some stores even used the confusion as a marketing tool.

The big German supermarket chain Aldi rounded prices down, resulting in price cuts averaging 2 to 3 percent. Rival Rewe dropped prices on about 250 items and promised it wouldn't raise any prices, and Kaufland boasted that prices on 1,300 items were lower than before.

The euro was actually introduced in 1999, when national currencies were pegged to it at fixed rates and ceased to trade independently, but the paper money first became available on Jan. 1. National currencies will continue to circulate side by side with the euro for up to two months.

Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain make up the new euro-zone. The European Union countries of Britain, Sweden and Denmark have opted out.



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