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Is There Actually a Cashiering Scam for a Nickel in Canada?

I minored in Political Science at the University of Alberta.

Photographer: Shane Lambert. I edited the original photo using artistic features.

Photographer: Shane Lambert. I edited the original photo using artistic features.

Learning How to Round to the Nearest Nickel

I don't know what year in grade school you learn rounding in but I think it's before grade 7. It's just too important of a life skill to have to hold off much later than that. For sure, rounding isn't advanced mathematics, a point that I'll return to.

Accordingly, I'm also sure that every reader of this article will know that when rounding to the near 'five' or, in cash terms, the nearest nickel you round in the following manner. A number ending in a 1 or 2 gets rounded down to a 0. Similarly, a number ending in a 6 or 7 is rounded down to the nearest 5. Conversely, numbers ending in 3, 4, 8, or 9 all get rounded up to either the 5 or the 0.

For example, when you round $1.01 to the nearest nickel, you round down to $1.00. A value of $1.04 would get rounded up to $1.05.

If you don't know what happened in those two examples or you think that they are wrong, then you might be the occasional cashier that doesn't know how to round my cash purchases. However, I actually think these cashiers are just deliberately misrounding to short me a nickel and I'll tell you why.

Background to Nickel Rounding in Canada

But first, there's a bit of a background to review. This will be particularly useful to the reader that doesn't live in Canada.

Back in 2012, the Canadian federal government informed us that the Royal Canadian Mint was going to stop producing pennies. This was the one-cent unit of currency in Canada, recognized as a small copper coin with two maple leaves on one side and Elizabeth II on the other side.

In the aftermath, any cash transaction that ended in a 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, or 9 (in the hundredth's place) would be rounded to the nearest nickel. Cash transactions where the hundredth's place was a 1, 2, 6, or 7 would be rounded down while the transactions that ended in a 3, 4, 8, or 9 would be rounded up. It seemed like a square deal as the consumer would win a little on some transactions while the seller would win a little on the others for what seemed like a balanced trade-off. Unfortunately, how things have worked out is that whoever gets to do the rounding gets to 'error' in their favor.

Cashiers Sometimes Round Incorrectly

Occasionally, cashiers round prices that end with the 1s and 2s to 5s instead of 0s. Likewise, they occasionally round the 6s and 7s up to 0s instead of rounding them down. This could be passed off as honest mistakes except for two things.

Firstly, I really do think that you learn how to round in Canada in elementary school and almost all cashiers would have that level of education. Secondly, I've only ever been the victim of misrounding where the error was in the company's favor as opposed to mine. By that second point, I mean I've never had my price reduced by a nickel due to misrounding but I've had it increased by that amount dozens of times.

Am I sweating the small stuff if I've only been ripped off $2 over the last eight years? That's not the way I look at this issue.

Try to See the Big Picture

What I see is more people than me: I see millions of Canadians each occasionally being ripped off little by little. I also see it, and this is important, as a deliberate act on the part of cashiers. If it was not deliberate then you would expect mistakes to be balanced. Furthermore, I don't accept that cashiers don't understand how to round properly. The job doesn't require many credentials but rounding is absolutely basic when it comes to mathematics.

So why do some cashiers behave this way? I would not be surprised to learn that a large company that employs thousands of cashiers is thinking about a big picture where misrounding makes a big difference. However, the individual cashier is different and their motives will vary.

They might misround just to make sure their tills aren't short at the ends of their shifts out of fear of a grouchy supervisor or store manager. Then again, it really could be because a cashier wants a buck in his/her till for a free pop.

Whatever the case, I have no problems telling a cashier they owe me five cents. The reaction is often a flushed face and a reluctant nickel being slid across the glass counter. One time, the cashier gave me ten cents after stating that her till didn't have a nickel. It appeared she shortchanged me, deliberately, because her float wasn't properly supplied and my nickel paying for that instead of the company's was the result even though it's not my job to supply her float. Many other times that I've asked for my nickel, the cashier has played dumb and pretended that 2s really do round to 5s.

I'm aware that an individual nickel isn't worth a big fight. Some will say that it's not worth any fight. It's these people that could use a lesson in mathematics too because nickels add up.

I wonder, in fact, suspect, that somewhere in Canada there's a corporation making lots of nickels because there's a force or pressure somewhere in the company favoring rounding the price up when the cashiers should be rounding down. This force is probably your everyday store manager that threatens to reduce a cashier's pay if his/her till isn't balanced. By "balanced," they mean it can't have less money than expected -- but it can have more and that's where everyone's nickels are going (ie. it can be imbalanced in their favor).

Someday, the nickel-rounding scam might catch someone's attention and lead to some kind of class action. Until then, the common consumer has no real recourse because arguing over a nickel isn't worth it.

That is to say, it's not worth it unless you enjoy the moment where their faces turn red, they gulp, and then they slide you your correct change. I do enjoy those moments as I smile at them in a way that communicates that I know exactly what they are up to. The looks on their faces suggest that they know it too and it's not that they didn't pass grade 6 math.

I would be happier to have a word with the store managers but that's too risky. When I see the big picture but everyone else sees the small picture, guess who loses? The big picture here, as I see it, isn't the cashier but management. These sleazeball store managers that threaten to keep cashiers' pay if their tills don't balance are in the background of all this.

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