Dubai: For long, a majority of customers in the UAE have been used to short-changing. Just like any other wrong practice which has been there long enough for people to forget that it's wrong anymore, short-changing too escaped the attention of most. Hardly anyone paying a Dh10 banknote for a bill of Dh9.90 expects to be returned the 10 fils anymore. The few who make it a point to ask for exact change not only receive scornful looks from fellow customers but also often get laughed at by counter staff at shops.
Weeks after Gulf News raised the question — Who pockets Dh50 million a year? — we decided to find out what happens when a customer lodges a complaint to the authorities about not being returned the exact change.
The first step was to visit a popular department store in the city. I made two separate purchases. The first bill came to Dh6.35. When I presented a Dh20 note, I was returned Dh13.50 instead of Dh13.65. When I asked the cashier about the 15 fils, she offered me a 25 fils coin without any hesitation. The second purchase was for Dh3.40, for which I paid Dh3.50. Once again, I asked for the 10 fils balance. This time, I politely declined the 25 fils offered by the cashier and demanded the exact change. The response was: "Sorry, but we do not have the exact change."
After two calls to the consumer protection hotline 600522225 at the UAE Ministry of Economy went unanswered, the third call was attended. The official patiently listened to the complaint and took down the details. I was told that the complaint would be faxed to the Dubai office of the department, from where officials would contact me and initimate me about the status of the complaint. However, more than eight days later, there has been no response from the authorities, leading us to the conclusion that customers have nowhere to go.
The ministry's inaction shows nothing but lack of concern about the issue and about consumer rights.
The bottom-line — customers need to stand up for it as a matter of right, if change is to happen. It would not be practical for retailers to always offer the few extra fils if more and more customers demanded their right. Unless retailers feel the pressure, they would not feel the need to find smaller denominations. If more retailers ask the authorities for smaller denominations and more complaints from customers reach the authorities, then change is likely.
If smaller denominations are not available at all, then why allow the customers to be taxed; why not put an end to minting these coins and change the way products are priced? Given current circumstances, if 25 fils were the smallest denomination, it would be business as usual for everyone.
If all calls for change fall on deaf ears, the only solution left would be to use debit and credit options for those who are able to do so.
An attempt by Gulf News to elicit comment from six of the most popular retailers in the country on the issue of short-changing was met with indifference. "We are not to blame because we don't gain or lose much…the real issue is the lack of coins of smaller denominations," said one. "Tell us where to find change if it is not even available at banks," asked another. "This is not even a real issue because no customer ever complained," retorted a representative at another outlet.
As the Gulf News campaign on making every fils count draws to a close, we present a snapshot of observations from our coverage on the practice of retailers not tendering back exact change to consumers across the UAE:
The campaign attracted a massive response from readers, many of whom recounted personal experiences and said it was extremely rare to see retailers tendering exact change back, even after the campaign started. Some readers called the practice daylight robbery, others called it cheating on part of retailers. One diabetic reader described how shops always paid him back with a sweet peppermint or chewing gum instead of smaller coins, while another reader urged shops to draft and display publicly a policy on exact change. Most said they would start asking for exact change following the campaign.
According to most hypermarkets, shops and other outlets, the standard practice in case of a transaction involving the odd change such as 5 fils or 15 fils is to round off to the last 25 fils or the next 25 fils of the bill amount. For example, if a customer runs up a bill of Dh175.85 or Dh175.90 at a retail outlet, his total chargeable bill amount would be either Dh175.75 or rounded off to Dh176, varying from one shop to another. Retailers claimed such a practice benefits accounting and the total amount averages out across transactions where sometimes the customers benefit and sometimes the retailer. They also said an alleged shortage of 1 fils, 5 fils and 10 fils coins was preventing them from tendering back exact change even if they wanted to. Some outlets also claimed that customers rarely ask for exact change.
Central Bank/retail banks
The UAE Central Bank said it continues to mint all six denominations coins that are legal tender — 1 fils, 5 fils, 10 fils, 25 fils, 50 fils and Dh1 — in addition to a few commemorative coins. The Central Bank as well as many other retail banks operating in the UAE said they were not aware of any shortage of coins in the country. A Central Bank official said if retailers were not using coins of smaller denominations in their transactions, “there could be other reasons which we are not aware of”.
Ministry of Economy
In response to the campaign and subsequent massive consumer feedback, the Consumer Protection Department at the UAE Ministry of Economy said all retailers in the country are legally obliged to give back exact change to customers at the end of every transaction. Terming the current practice of rounding off every transaction to the nearest multiple of 25 fils as illegal, the department said tough legal action will be taken against shopping outlets and merchants who fail to comply with the exact-change practice, even if it involves 1 fils. However, it also asked consumers to play a proactive role to stop the practice. In case of violations, consumers can directly contact the ministry to register their complaints.
Bankers and economists
According to economists and bankers in the UAE and elsewhere, preferring to round off purchase prices at multiples of 25 fils rather than doling out exact change in 1, 5 or 10-fils coins gives the advantage to business owners. However, opinion is divided on what factors lead to the practice and the extent of financial gain involved for retailers. According to one economist, shops that are typically small could be doing this to increase their profit margins, while another UAE economist felt the amount of change retained by outlets was not big enough to make a dent in the prosperity of the UAE at a macro-economic level. Almost all agreed that the use of small tender such as 1 fils, 5 fils and 10 fils has now become impractical due to rising inflation.
GULF NEWS RECOMMENDS
Getting back exact change from every transaction is a consumer right protected by the law in UAE. Here are some of the options you could consider:
- Always ask for exact change at the end of every transaction, whether it is at the local grocery, hypermarket or a fashion store. Remember that insisting on change from an outlet is not asking for a favour, it is your right as a customer.
- If the outlet is unable to return smaller denominations, ask for the next available denomination — which is most likely to be 25 fils. Do not forfeit what is due to you as a consumer.
- Ask outlets if they have a policy on returning exact change — whether the store would return the more or less exact change. In most cases they won’t have one, but repeated demand from customers might spur them to draft one.
- Using your debit or credit card could be one option where you can pay the bill amount without bothering about paying extra money or getting exact change back. However, this is only an option — in case you want to exercise it.
- All retailers across UAE are legally obliged to tender exact change. If you want to pursue a complaint against any outlet, you can contact the Consumer Protection Department at the UAE Ministry of Economy at its hotline 600522225. There is no clear indication, however, of how long the process to resolve your complaint will take.
- In case you don’t want the retailer to pocket the extra fils every time you make a transaction, you could also ask them to transfer the extra money as a contribution to a charity of your choice. However, many smaller outlets might not have a mechanism in place to carry this out.