Fighting the fickle dollar-bill changer Suffragette coin could bring relief


DETROIT -- With the fervor of newly minted evangelists, vending-machine company executives have taken up the cause of Susan B. Anthony. Not the famous suffragette, the infamous dollar coin.

One of them is Robert Nowak, finance and administration vice president at Warren, Mich.-based Variety Food Services, which serves more than 250,000 southeastern Michigan workers daily through its cafeterias and vending machines.

Variety puts its coins where its mouth is, circulating more than a million Anthony dollars a year to get around fickle paper-bill changers, cut down on unnecessary change and build grass-roots support for the dollar coin.

"The paper dollar in your wallet today is about the equivalent of the quarter in your pocket 20 years ago," Mr. Nowak says of the shrinking value of the dollar.

As the dollar's value has shrunk, the variety and cost of vending-machine food have grown. Many items now approach a dollar, and many kinds of sandwiches cost up to $2, which is a lot of quarters.

"When you put a coin into a machine, chances of that transaction happening smoothly are 99.9 percent," Mr. Nowak says. "When you put paper into the machine, the success falls dramatically down into the 70-percent range.

"You see people rubbing dollar bills on tables to smooth them out so the machine will accept them. . . . Sometimes they get angry and kick the machines."

Typically, about 70 percent of the Anthony dollars Variety puts out through change machines come shooting right back through the vending machines. The company doesn't know what becomes of the other 30 percent. Mr. Nowak assumes 1,22 the customers spend them with various retailers who, finding no space for the dollars in cash drawers, quickly return them to the bank.

Industry spokesmen say the use of the dollar coins, which debuted in 1979, is rising among transit companies and vending-machine companies. The U.S. Mint reports steady but modest outflow of the dollars, which peaked at about $17 million in 1987.

About half, or 400 million of them, are still in the Mint, which supplies them to the Federal Reserve.

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