Column May 12, 2010: In for a penny, in for a pounding

I JUST went to the shop. I won’t tell you what I went for, this isn’t one of those confessional columns, but the item I bought cost me £1.09.

I tell you what, I’ll let you in on which shop it was. It was the Sainsbury’s Local over the road. My road, not yours. Unless you work with me. I’m going down a cul-de-sac. Not the road. The road isn’t a cul-de-sac. I’m drowning. Help.

So, anyway, I handed over £1.10 from my back pocket. I wouldn’t normally have change there, but there’s a little hole in my front pocket. 

And then time mysteriously slowed down.

For I was caught in the penny trap, the trap we all fall into when we overpay by a penny.

All the permutations ran through my brain. Stay and look like a miser? Or should I walk away nonchalantly? “Cuh!” my action would eloquently state, “I am far too important to stand here waiting for a mere penny. I wear a suit to work, for heaven’s sake.”

But then the fear of the callback clutched at my heart. The dread of the moment when the checkout assistant would say, “Ey, love, you’ve forgotten your change.” And then I would have to skulk back, in front of the queue, to retrieve my dull penny.

I decided to wait. But the checkout assistant was chatting. And painfully slowly she reached into the till, took out the penny and kept it in her hand.

I immediately switched from “imperious penny change avoider” to “tight-fisted penny change hoarder.”

Now I was waiting, waiting in front of a load of people all watching and judging me, waiting for a penny – a unit of currency so small it doesn’t even buy a penny sweet these days, so small I’d need sixty of them just to buy a copy of the Daily Post.

“Why didn’t I hand over a £2 coin, or even £1.20?” I railed at the heavens. “Nobody would bat an eyelid at a man of my bearing and position hanging about a bit for 11p.”

The sadistic checkout assistant finally dropped the hot penny into my hand. “D’ya wanna receipt?”

Did I want a receipt for my £1.09 purchase? (Oh, all right! It was a bottle of Coke.) I have a £2 limit on receipts.

I can’t imagine bringing anything back to the shop for less than £2. It’s not like a bottle of Coke can be corked.

Equally, I can’t imagine going back to the shop and saying, “Can I exchange this? It looked all right in the shop, but when I took it into the daylight it was very lacklustre. Do you have an Irn Bru in this size?”

Aside from that, I didn’t much fancy being handed my receipt first, and then having the penny placed upon the top.

Incidentally, when did shops implement that ridiculous way of handing over change? You know the one. First the assistant hands you your purchase, then she places any notes flat on your hand. Then she piles the loose change on top of the notes. And then she puts the receipt on top of that.

Frankly, if you can get the money into your pocket or purse without dropping a coin after that rigmarole, you should consider a career in the circus.

Perhaps that’s the point. Maybe margins are so tight, the supermarkets count on bits of change rolling under the shelves, ready to be retrieved and banked later.

I don’t know why the supermarket assistants don’t go the whole hog, hand us our change and then tickle us under the arm. 

“No, no, it’s all right,” I said, desperate to get away from the tills and into safety.

I bustled out of the shop, shoving my change into my front pocket.

The penny fell out through the hole and rolled down a grid.

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