Shortchanging Lebanon: The everyday racket of coin skimming

Small change has always been a touchy subject for vendors in Lebanon. No one ever seems to have it and thus asking a cashier for it is considered taboo for many, if not most shoppers. I’m not sure how this stigma over small amounts of cash evolved, but it appears to be growing and certain businesses are taking advantage by pocketing excessive numbers of coins all day long.

As far back as I can remember, mom-and-pop stores, i.e ‘dakakeen,’ often claimed to lack change on the questionable premise that they did not do much business. As a result, many kept cashier drawers full of small packs of Chiclets gum and offered them to customers as a replacement to 250 Lebanese lira (LL) notes, equivalent to $0.16.

Several years ago the 500LL and 250LL notes were replaced with coins, a move which seems to have aggravated the problem by providing yet another excuse for small merchants not to carry ‘bothersome’ coinage in their registers.

Now, even more insidious than the Chiclets scenario– and its dubious equivalency rate– at least one major Lebanese establishment has decided to stop providing change altogether, in the amounts of 250LL and 500LL, creating an average transaction skimming of $0.16 to $0.33.

I noticed this trend after several back-handed episodes at the wildly popular Lebanese fast food chain, “Zaatar W Zeit”:

Image: www.beirut.com

While I do appreciate their new menu, particularly the “Spizy Chicken” sandwich (despite its obnoxious spelling) Zaatar W Zeit’s shortchange policy is absolutely unprofessional, dishonest and verging on outright thievery.

Case in point: On four out of four visits to their Zalka branch over recent weeks I have been denied change of 500LL or $0.33 without exception.

Worse still, cashiers repeatedly failed to apologize or even acknowledge the shortchanging by continuing conversations with other staff members or staring blankly ahead as I patiently awaited the remainder of my money. At this point, Zaatar W Zeit cashiers must know that most diners will give up and simply accept the extra, albeit illegal tax of up to 30 cents or more on their purchases. How embarrassing would it be to ask for such small change, particularly if out on a date, many may think.

Yet even if one persists, he will be met with more excuses, such as “Sorry, we’re all out,” as I was told on three separate occasions. Finally, on my last visit two nights ago, a cashier leveled with me, saying nonchalantly: “We don’t carry coins.”

“Nice policy,” I said, to smirks from the boys behind the counter. Clearly unlawful, financially dishonest and yet totally acceptable in their eyes.

“Next time order something that doesn’t need change,” one of the waiters suggested. Great scam odds, I thought, considering more than half the restaurant’s menu items are priced in factors of 500LL and 250LL.

While 30 cents might not sound like a lot, Zaatar W Zeit’s large two-storey Zalka location is open 24 hours per day and is often packed with dozens of customers into the early morning hours. I wonder if the “no change” policy applies to all seven branches across Lebanon and several more in Dubai and other cities.

With hundreds of potential transactions per day–if not per hour– that wouldn’t be a bad chuck of (extorted) change.

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3 comments
  1. Or, just tell them, “well then, that’s your tip. Don’t expect more from me since I don’t carry 1000s (or I need my 1000s/ or I’m all out too).” Of course this would require that you be eating in, but it’s a start

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