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Arithmetic
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I have a question for those of you who have worked retail and/or are no good at maths.

See, I'm good with numbers. Always have been. One of the consequences of this is that I'm really not sure what an average level of numeracy is.

When I went to the supermarket yesterday, after going through the checkout, I owed £32.74. Now, I had in my purse at this point some twenty pound notes and an absolute ass-load of coins. I could have just given the guy at the checkout two twenties, but I didn't want to do that because that would have meant getting even more change.


My first thought was just to hand over £43, and get given £10.26 in change. However, I know that this doesn't always go over too well. I've had cashiers act very, very confused when I've done that sort of thing, and I'm sure I've seen some of you people rant about having to make change for crazy mathmos.

Having contemplated various other possibilities (£42.74, £43.04, etc.) I figured that I had so much change on me, I may as well count it out and pay the exact amount. So I counted out twelve pound coins and handed them over "that's twelve pounds there", then counted out 74 pence, "and here's 74p" and finally handed over a twenty pound note.

To me, this is obvious. 12 + 0.74 + 20 = 32.74, but the guy I handed it too spent a good few seconds looking confused and totting it up in his head then apologised for having to do so. So I'm curious about two things:

1. How obvious is that sort of sum to people at large? Is it something that most people can tot up without thinking, or am I just unusually numerate?

2. Given that I didn't want to just give £40 and get a whole lot of extra change, is there any more cashier-friendly method I could have used?

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Heh, I love getting that look from cashiers. I always just tell them "just enter it into the register, you'll see. don't worry."

1. Obvious to anyone mathematically inclined, or who has cashiered for a few months, but otherwise strikes 'em down.

2. No, but I hope you weren't counting all this out slowly whilst there was a huge line.

I wasn't. I can count it out quickly. Probably takes me about as much time to count it out as a normal credit card transaction takes.

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1. Obvious to me with discalculia. I'd be slower than you at working it out, but simple addition like that doesn't throw me. But then if I work at it slowly and carefully, I can do all kinds of maths, so I'm perhaps not the best person to compare to the average cashier, either.

2. In your situation, I'd have gone with the loose change option like you did as my first option. Otherwise I would have handed over £42.74 if I had it, followed by £43.04. I do this quite frequently and have only had a couple of people get confused by it, and did the 'just ring it up on the till, it'll be fine' thing that burr86 mentioned. But basically, if I can hand over the small change, I will. This is because a lot of cashiers prefer not to have to count out a shedload of change, or hand over valuable small change - it's a real bitch when you keep running out of pennies and tuppences because so many things end up priced at x.99, x.98 and x.97 and everyone needs them. In some shops, cashiers will thank you profusely if you give them a pile of loose change.

(Edit to clarify that I have been a cashier in the past)

Edited at 2007-12-15 00:54 (UTC)

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Also in the cashier's defense, people try to rip them off with 'tactics' like mixing up the money handed to them. He would have had to check what you gave him before putting it through the register, whether he's mathematically inclined or not. You may be trustworthy, but any inconsistencies in his tray at the end of the day comes out of his pay. (I think I just wrote a poem.)

That's why I hand it over bit at a time, rather than all in one go. I figure that if I hand him the £12, then he can be counting that out to make sure that it is £12 while I'm counting out the 74p, and so on. I do see your point about him needing to make doubly certain, though.

I worked in retail my entire life until this restaurant business. I've been struck by quick change artists, too, and lost $50 in about 30 seconds flat. -- In your defense, you weren't asking for change; you were giving it. Quick change artists want a 10 back from 2 5's, and then give you the 5's and ask for a 20, etc.

The amount you handed over made perfect sense to me. But some people don't understand the concept of giving too much to get an even bill back.

Also, in America, we don't have $1 coins, so it's a bit different. I imagine (and remember it) being confusing sometimes. It's so easy to lose a dollar because you thought it was another denomination coin. (Well, not too easy, but you know what I mean.) Even easier to lose a $2 coin. Ugh.

By the way, I detest math, and I'm horrible with it, but even I got that concept.

Having worked retail, I can say that average numeracy is scarily low. that said, whilst I believe I would have followed what you'd done there, I'd still have double checked it, as too many people try to pull a fast one.

Oh and cashiers will love you for giving change. So mant times I've had customers purchase very small items to break very big notes (£20 note for a pack of chewing gum was common) just so they could get the change. The tills empty fast at that rate.

Also bear in mind. A lot of store cashiers are likely to be non-graduate, non-academic acheivers. And numeracy in and of itself isn't valued unfortunately.

You, otoh, are better at maths than say, I am, and I'm pretty good compared to most. It's also Very (very very very) important I observe that some cashiers are the other way and do the job because the hours are good or it fits in with other stuff, or because they're waiting for a better job, or whatever. I have to say this because that's what SB was doing for a living when we met.

The other comments about expectations are true, as are a preference for receiving small change but having it done quickly. The most confusing thing is when someone has worked out how much to overpay to get a note back (eg bill is 27.50 they pay 32.50) as that just looks like a trick.

And unfortunately there are people that try to trick cashiers into giving too much change, so they tend to be more cautious.

I have worked as a cashier at a local grocery store chain. The answer tends to be what time of day you went to the store. Usually at non-peak hours you end up with the cashiers who are incompetant and really have no buisness touching money. Those cashiers may get rediculously confused if you gave them money in any way that is not the bill for the larger amount and the coins only for the smaller portion.

When I handled the money, if someone threw 12 pounds (I don't know the ascii code for that) at me in change, I would have just entered that amount first and then handled each form of change differently since most cash register systems can handle that.

In reality, the way most cash registers are set up, a common knowledge of basic math is not really required. All you really need to do is know the value of the money (which is written right on it!) and how to type that into the register. If the cashier were rediculously anal, they could enter each individual coin being put in their till until the total was reached (I actually did that with some people who were paying their bills with unrolled coins before because they were a dick and just dumped them on the register).

A way to make it simpler would have been to present the larger denomination first, so the 20 pounds followed by the 12 pound and then followed by the 74 pence since that is usually the method in which it is read on paper, most likely it is easier to figure out since it would be (20+12)+0.74 rather than the grouping you presented (12+0.74)+20.

I guess I could simplify this as saying that the easier approach that requires less thinking is to provide the whole numbers before the fraction of the whole number.

I would have been slightly confused by it in that order. I'm used to counting money downwards: start with biggest bills, add change on top. So, had you done "20 + 12 + 0.74", I'd have found it easier. I think this answers both #1 and #2.

I have awful dyscalculia. I'd have been just fine with that, and probably would have been grateful to you for letting me know how much each bit is (though, as someone else mentions, you re-count to verify).

Then again, I started working a cash register when I was like six, have taught dozens of people I've worked with elsewhere or who are friends of mine the real way to make change as fast as possible (count up! count up!) with absolutely no mental math required, just the ability to count, and to this day can remember and count out all the bank-dictated amounts and configurations of both rolled coins and banded bills. So.

(And okay, I do agree that you should have done either biggest-to-smallest denominations, or smallest-to-biggest; the 12-74-20 might have thrown him. I would have probably done the 20 first, then the 12, then the 74.)

It always amazes me too the people weho cannot do basic maths. Is it an indication of the (lack of) quality of education these days?

Usually I pay for everything on my debit card - exact change every time, and I don't end up with a purse full of shrapnel.

Having worked as a cashier, I'd just like to add that I often had that dazed look regardless of the maths. There's something about working retail that numbs the mind.

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I don't have dyscalculia but my dyspraxia alone leaves me with faulty working memory leading to my 1st percentile score for mental arithmetic (98th percentile for verbal comprehension).

It just takes the smallest distraction and I'll have forgotten the first part of the sum (paper is my friend), having the smallest amount in the middle or the sequence not the end would possibly be enough, or some other distraction like noticing a table football player in someone's hair...

Of course I'd never work in a job that required good working memory but I'm sure there's siginificant amounts of undiagnosed specific learning differences out there (as I was only diagnosed this year for example).

I agree with what several people have said about the order of handing the components over. To further optimise having it go into their brain easily, you could maybe count it out like this:

there's 20
21, 22, 23... 32 (placing pound coins on the counter area in a row, or perhaps in three rows 5 + 5 + 2)
... and that's the 74p

I have fairly good mental arithmetic skills but I think if I was handling cashier level money I would find it confusing if someone mixed the values so would do 0.74 + 12 + 20, or 20, 12, 74.

My older sister isn't bad at mental arithmetic, or at least wasn't before she got really ill. She worked in a local goth shop and got conned by someone messing with change. It wasn't just the arithmetic that confused her, but the chatter-patter the con guy was giving her. She was only 16 and had intercommed upstairs for a manager to help because she was overwhelmed but the manager refused to come down. The guy was giving her notes, then taking them back and giving her notes (different lower notes) and swapping around while talking very loudly and breaking personal space and being quite intimidating and impatient seeming. My sister was glad to get rid of him, until she found that at the end of the day the till was £10 short which was taken out of my sister's £20 for a day's work.

There are strategies for dealing with con-changers but that's usually only learned by experience or after being penalised by your employer. Checkout workers are not often treated well even in small shops like the one my sister worked at. She was cheap labour, didn't know her rights. The manager didn't care, cos they just withheld salary.

In a supermarket, that it extra odd because cashiers just have to punch in the numbers and the till tells them what to do. The least confusing way you could have done that was to put down the £20 note first, then counted out the £12, then put down the 74p. People often find it easier to work down in value than have large, small, large.

I speak as a shop assistant of some years experience, and an AS level Maths 'U' grade holder (I refused to reject it on the basis I had earnt that U by going to all most of my lessons)

1. yes obvious
2. A debit card

I don't think I'm in the demographic you're looking for answers from. I'm the sort that tries to find out the most cashier friendly way to get a perfect square back in change.

but if you were to hand me british notes and british coins like that, i probably would stare at them for quite a while, and turn them over and examine them and behave probably similar to the way you would if i handed you some forints.

When I worked retail, I tended to switch my brain off completely while on checkout as the most bearable way to manage it so even something which usually would have been straight forward for me would sometimes require brain boot up time. I also tend to get a bit coin blind after a while and have to squint at what I've been handed to make sure it's actually right.

The till does the maths for them; they just have to count up the coins to check that you weren't fibbing. But working in a shop numbs the mind (I think it's the air con, or the boredom or maybe both).

My experience would be that roughly 90% of cashiers would have no problem at all with that (and about half of the remainder would get horribly confused). I'd probably hand over £40.74 and hope to get £5 and 3 £1s or 4 £2s back in this situation.

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