CHICAGO — Coins were in short supply last month at El Nopal Bakery in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood as the coronavirus pandemic and statewide shutdowns stymied the flow of coins through the economy.
"We were almost at zero change last month. ... About 50 percent of our customers pay with cash," owner Ozzie Ocegueda said.
The bakery placed a sign on its counter asking people to pay with exact change or a debit or credit card. At times, the bakery worked with customers to round up or down the amount due, or gave them a cookie if the store couldn't provide change, he said.
"You got to be able to accommodate it," Ocegueda said about cash transactions.
El Nopal Bakery is again receiving its typical weekly coin orders of $250 from its bank.
But even as some stores see coin circulation improve, other business owners say they're still asking customers to exchange their coins for bills in order to continue serving shoppers who pay with cash. For several businesses, including laundromats, convenience stores and grocers, cash makes up a bulk of their transactions.
"Bringing coins in helps retailers, but it really helps our neighbor," said Hannah Walker, vice president of political affairs for The Food Industry Association and a member of the U.S. Coin Task Force.
There are about 7.1 million individuals, including 7.3 percent of households in the Chicago area, who don't have traditional bank accounts and rely on cash transactions, according to a 2019 report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The Federal Reserve created the U.S. Coin Task Force in July to address the circulation problem.
The U.S. Treasury estimates more than $40 billion worth of coins is in circulation, with most of it sitting inside 128 million households — in piggy banks, car cup holders and couch cushions.
In June, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers that coronavirus-related statewide shutdown orders were part of the reason coin circulation slowed. Since mid-June, the Fed, which manages coin inventory, has been rationing coins to banks to spread out the supply.
Chicago-area banks like Fifth Third Bank and PNC Bank say they are able to fulfill more coin orders to clients, but issues remain.
"In the aggregate, we have enough coinage but are sometimes short of specific denominations. So, for example, in a particular market we may have plenty of quarters but are short nickels or dimes," Fifth Third Bank spokesman Larry Magnesen said in an email.
The number of customers not getting a full order has dramatically declined since the height of the problem in June, Magnesen said.
Cornelia Bogdam, 67, of the city's Lakeview neighborhood, has added a new routine to her weekly errands: Find coins.
The coin exchange machine at her apartment building, which has a coin-only washer and dryer, is running low on coins, so she's had to hunt for them in the past few weeks. Usually she gets them at Jewel-Osco and other stores, she said.
"Every time I'm out (shopping) I have to get quarters," Bogdam said. "How else am I going to wash my clothes?"
The coin task force has identified a few factors slowing the flow of coins, including a drop in coin redemption at banks after many branches limited access to lobbies earlier this year.
To keep the supply moving, the group has recommended coin drives and consumer incentive buyback programs, and told businesses like laundromats to rely more on their own coin change machines to get coins.
"We don't want to end up at the point we were in June," Walker said.
The task force also began a marketing campaign on social media this month under the hashtag #GetCoinMoving to educate the public on the importance of bringing their spare change to stores.
Some laundromats are depending more on the quarter inventory inside washer and dryer machines and relying less on banks to fulfill orders.
Tony Kahan, co-owner of Chicago chain The Friendly Wash, said employees at three of its four locations that accept cash collect coins from washer and dryer machines daily. Over the summer, the laundromat received only a few rolls from the bank, he said.
"We harvest coins from machines more regularly. If someone siphons $30 to $40 dollars (from the change machine), we need to make that up because people won't bring tons of quarters when they come wash their clothes," Kahan said.
Others businesses with fewer cash-only customers are going cashless in part because of changing consumer habits. The pandemic has also pushed some businesses to accept only contactless forms of payments to minimize interactions with customers out of concerns of spreading the virus.
In February, 5.4 percent of mobile payment company Square's customers operated cashless businesses. By August, it was 13.4 percent, the company said.
Felipe Chacron, an economist for San Francisco-based Square, said without the pandemic, it would have taken the company three years to see the share of cashless businesses reach that level. He expects it will remain that high even after the pandemic as more consumers shop online and use electronic forms of payment.
"We don't expect to see things gravitate back to what they were before," he said.