You may not be able to get change at the grocery store—here's why

The change drawer of the cash register at Symbiote Collectibles in West Reading on July 9, 2020.
MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

There's a new shortage in the U.S. caused by the coronavirus pandemic — and it's not a paper product or food staple. Coins are currently hard to come by and, as a result, some grocery stores, banks and restaurants may not be able to provide you with change. 

Kroger, one of the largest grocery chains in the nation, announced this week that it will no longer be able to give customers change in coins amid the shortage.

If you pay with cash at the supermarket and are owed change, it "can be applied to your loyalty card and can be used on your next in-store, pick-up or delivery purchase," Kroger wrote on Twitter. "Alternately, we can round your transaction up to the nearest dollar and donate it to your local food bank."

Other major retailers, including Walmart, CVS, 7-Eleven, Wawa and Starbucks, have started encouraging customers to pay with credit cards, debit cards or exact change. Some 7-Eleven stores are offering a free Slurpee to customers who trade $5 in change for $5 in cash.

One Twitter user posted a picture of a sign outside of a Starbucks alerting customers that "we can only accept exact change or electronic payment at this time."

Starbucks tweet

Another Twitter user posted a picture of this sign at H-E-B, a supermarket chain based in San Antonio, Texas:

Heb tweet

Here's a sign posted inside a Kroger:

kroger 2 tweet

Why is there a coin shortage? 

There isn't a lack of coins right now — rather, coins aren't circulating like they normally do.

"With establishments like retail shops, bank branches, transit authorities and laundromats closed, the typical places where coin enters our society have slowed or even stopped the normal circulation of coin," explains the Federal Reserve, which is creating a "U.S. Coin Task Force" to address the shortage. In July, the task force will "work together to identify, implement and promote actions to reduce the consequence and duration of Covid-19 related disruptions to normal coin circulation," the Fed reports.

There's reduced business activity, but also reduced consumer activity right now, says industry analyst Ted Rossman. "People are spending less in general," he tells CNBC Make It. "And they're especially spending less with coins and bills because they think they might carry germs.

"It's not that there aren't enough coins in the country anymore," Rossman says. "It's just that they're not in the right place. It's a supply chain thing, so many of them are lying around either in our homes or in businesses that are closed, and they're just not really where we need them right now."

If you want to help get coins circulating, bring your change to the bank and exchange it for bills or deposit it into your account, he encourages. Or next time you buy something in-person, try to pay with exact change.

As for how long the shortage may last, "I think that it's going to hit different regions differently," says Rossman, noting that virus hot spots might have more of an issue with coin circulation, since more businesses will remain closed and people will be more inclined to stay home. "California, for example, has reimposed a lot of their shutdowns. That's going to hurt this issue of [coins] recirculating through the economy." Other parts of the country, he adds "may not be encountering this [shortage] at all."

Ultimately, it's hard to predict exactly what will happen with the coin shortage: "Kind of like the path of the virus itself, there's some human behavior that could help or hurt with this."

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What is a pandemic?
What is a pandemic?