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Welcome to the Greenwood.Net Curiosity Corner

Cash Registers

Oct 14, 2019

Curiosity Corner
Dr. Jerry D. Wilson,
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Lander University

We’ve been dealing with this “nine” thing in prices… 29 cents instead of 30 cents, and gas being $2.499 instead of $2.50. You never have four pennies for exact change, so you almost always get a penny back. Meanwhile, they don’t make a coin for one-tenths of a penny, so getting exact change when paying for gas is almost impossible.

Well, an anonymous Curiosity Corner reader—who is also an engineer—sent me a more practical reason for these odd “nine” prices, which I now pass on to you.

Here’s what he says:

In a previous column, you answered a question about why prices often end in nine, such as 29 cents or $1.99. Your answer is certainly correct in that it makes the price seem less, and therefore increases sales. There is another reason, however.

When cash registers were first invented, they were hard to sell. The pullout wooden cash drawer was much cheaper. Granted, it would be nice to have a running total of the cash in the drawer thanks to the register, but the expensive new technology was not quickly embraced.

The cash register had a problem to solve—to save the merchant more money than the cost of the new machine. The problem was employee theft. Some poorly paid sales clerks were stealing money from the cash drawers. That’s where the cash register came in handy. The machine kept track of the amount of money in the drawer.

But, there were still problems. How do you get the clerk to use the cash register for every sale? The first solution was to put a bell on the machine that rang every time the drawer opened. This helped attract the attention of the “floor walkers,” whose job was to look for clerks with sticky fingers. They were alerted to every sale that was rung up on the register.

However, there was another problem. It was too easy to just pay the fifty cents or dollar for the merchandise and not worry about whether the clerk put the money in the cash register or in his/her own pocket.

Therefore, prices were changed to odd amounts, usually ending in sevens, eights, or nines. Few customers would have the exact amount, thus making it necessary for the clerk to open the register drawer to make change.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your picket.” –Will Rogers

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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