Sacagawea dollar a hit at Wal-Mart; Limited introduction of popular new coin irks smaller retailers; Currency


It never happened this way with the Susan B. Anthony dollar.

Consumers are clamoring for the U.S. Mint's newest currency -- the Sacagawea dollar -- thanks to a unique promotion that put the coin into cash registers at Wal-Mart.

By turning to the nation's largest retailer, the Mint has taken a new approach to market the golden-hued coin, which features the likeness of the Shoshone woman who assisted Lewis and Clark on their journey to the Pacific. Giving shoppers golden dollars as change -- up to $10 worth -- will help get the coins into circulation fast, the Mint said.

"We wanted to get it in the cash registers as quickly as possible, something the Susan B. Anthony [coin] never achieved in 20 years," said Jennifer Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Mint.

The Anthony dollar, often confused with a quarter because of its similar size and ridged edge, never gained wide acceptance. It has taken 20 years for 857.2 million coins minted between 1979 and 1981 to go into circulation, Arnold said. The Mint stopped making the coin last year.

With its latest dollar product, the Mint is taking no chances. It first released the Sacagawea coin earlier this year through a promotion with General Mills Inc., placing one coin in every 2000th box of Cheerios. Toward the end of last month, the Mint began shipping $100 million worth to the Federal Reserve, and another $100 million worth to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The Wal-Mart promotion, in which consumers automatically get change in the new currency or can purchase $10 worth, began Jan. 27 in all Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. The promotion runs until the end of this month, or until the supply runs out.

"We are one of the few places you can get [the coins] through the end of the month," said Laura Pope, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "We've seen an outstanding response from customers requesting the coin."

At the Sam's Club on Eastern Avenue, the first shipment of dollar coins -- about $9,600 worth -- was gone in less than two weeks.

"People come in one day and buy 10 and come back the next day and buy 10 more," said David Goldwasser, merchandise manager. "They're very popular."

For now, the coins are available only at Wal-Mart and on the Mint's Web site, and are trickling into bank branches.

All Federal Reserve offices were to have received their first shipments of coins by Jan. 31, and had begun shipping to private banks Jan. 26.

The initial limited availability, coupled with the Wal-Mart agreement, has outraged some retail rivals. A complaint from the owner of an independent supermarket in Missouri prompted a congressman from that state, Democrat Ike Skelton, to question the partnership.

Jim Seigfreid, owner of Jim's IGA, an independent grocery store in Marshall, Mo., said customers came in about a week ago asking if he had any of the new dollars.

"I said, 'No, we can't get them yet.' And they said, 'We're getting them at Wal-Mart,' " he recalled. "I think it is very poor on our government's part. Wal-Mart is already a huge industry that's hard to compete with for small businesses like myself. Our government is giving them an unfair advantage that we can't get."

David Callahan, editor of Columbia-based Food World, a food retailing trade publication, said it is unprecedented for "the government to draw traffic for a particular retailer over another."

"Frankly, Wal-Mart doesn't need the help," he said.

Philip N. Diehl, director of the Mint, countered in a response to Skelton that the Wal-Mart agreement is not a conflict of interest.

Wal-Mart was just one of several companies that have presented ways to cooperatively promote the dollar, he said. In recent months, the Mint has also teamed with Macy's, Hallmark, Post Cereals and the Henson Co. to market the dollar and other Mint products, he said.

"Wal-Mart Stores Inc. does not have an exclusive right to distribute the Golden Dollar in the commercial sector," Diehl wrote. "Every retailer and commercial establishment has the right to carry the Golden Dollar. The Mint's agreement with Wal-Mart is designed to encourage all retailers and commercial businesses in the nation to use the new Golden Dollar in everyday transactions."

By entering the agreement, he said, the Mint hoped to avoid the type of "failure" it had with the Anthony dollar, and to encourage routine use in over-the-counter retail trade.

"The Wal-Mart agreement has had the intended effects," Diehl said.

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