Remember Peter, Paul, and Mary’s song when we boomers were young, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Well, since the pandemic put so many products in short supply, Chicago entrepreneur Howard Tullman has asked in Inc Magazine, “Where have all the pennies gone?”
I guess I always understood the run by crazy grocery store customers on everything Clorox when we thought that the COVID-19 virus was mainly transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces. Cleanliness has always been next to godliness in my book and who could fault anyone for wanting to make sure that they had a sufficient stockpile of the good stuff which would hopefully protect them and their families from the bad stuff as long as you didn’t drink it.
The consumer panic around toilet paper and the apparent need to empty the shelves across the nation of every sheet of Charmin was a little more inexplicable. Were that many conference calls really likely to move from the board room to the bathroom? Was Dad gonna double down on his “quiet time” reading in the toilet? Speaking of which, when Ann Landers was all the rage as an advice columnist, the largest number of letters she’d receive each month about disputes between husbands and wives concerned which way the toilet paper roll should be mounted and rotated. Now that’s something really worth worrying about. Not empty shelves at the grocery store.
It was clear from the very outset that there was absolutely no serious prospect of grocery stores and warehouse operations shutting down or the traditional supply chains suddenly collapsing and frankly, even if they did for a moment or two, everyone knew that Amazon would leap at the massive opportunity to acquire millions of additional plain or Prime customers and ship you all the 2-Ply Quilted Northern you needed. Why there was such a scramble for TP will always be a mystery to me.
But the most intriguing question of all was how in the world the world (and especially the banks) ran out of change? One of the privations of the pandemic was apparently pennies. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters allegedly dried up and disappeared virtually overnight and, all of a sudden, everything was about exact change, charity donations, and/or rounding up. Was this even a real thing or was it just another crafty conspiracy to finally get rid of those wretched and filthy pennies that have come over time to be the worst kind of pocket litter. And, even more importantly, where exactly did the little devils go?
This isn’t a purely rhetorical question. It’s not like “where does your lap go when you stand up?” It’s actually hard to get a straight answer because the majority of the explanations offered by the banks and the media don’t really make much sense. It’s not like people were dining on their dimes or suddenly collecting quarters. If the problem was that there aren’t enough coins in circulation because people aren’t out there spending their change to buy and sell things, then who really cares because you wouldn’t need the coins anyway to support the non-existent transactions and make tons of change for the shoppers.
If all the brave souls actually out in the stores were using credit cards rather than cash, then it’s not a problem at all. In fact, one of the most common sights in the midst of the pandemic were stores saying that they weren’t accepting cash at all. Sadly, this probably had more to do with fears about being robbed than about their ability to make correct change, but the end result was the same. They didn’t need your lousy nickels anyway.
So, the mystery remains, and it may be one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic. Maybe pennies are about to go the way of postcards (remember those), ashtrays on every table, coin-operated parking meters, match books covered with logos and advertising inside, yellow pages and, dare I say it, even business cards? A year or two from now, if your phone doesn’t automatically share your contact info with anyone you choose at the tap of a button, you’ll probably have a QR code tattooed on your forehead to accomplish the same thing.
The bottom line is that we’re seeing traditional objects and ordinary behaviors starting to disappear right and left – sometimes for good and sometimes good riddance.
Howard is author and co-author of several books, including his newest, “You Can’t Win a Race With Your Mouth: And 299 Other Expert Tips from a Lifelong Entrepreneur.”