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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is a Penny Rounded a Penny Lost? Ask Chipotle


My children are fans of the food at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Soft, fresh tacos; black beans; melted cheese - what's not to like? So I was intrigued when I read about a payment policy that the restaurant chain uses in some locations. It's called “rounding” (which, by coincidence, my daughter is learning about at elementary school).

The Consumerist recently riffed on a column in The Star-Ledger, which reported on Chipotle's practice of rounding the change in receipt totals for cash transactions at some restaurants. These locations do this so that cashiers don't have to handle lots of coins, which tends to slow the lines down. If you've ever been to Chipotle, you know that the food is dished out in assembly-line style, where you place your order and then walk along the counter, telling the staff that, yes, you'd like some guacamole, please, but hold the rice. You pay at the end of the line.

As The Consumerist pointed out, rounding to the nearest nickel isn't really a big deal, as long as the restaurant is rounding down. But if it rounds up, you pay extra - even if it's just a penny or two.

In one sense, this seems like a smart idea. Who wants excess change clogging up their pockets, anyway, especially if it means you'll get your food faster? But at least one customer objected to this “Chipotle-style math,” the New Jersey newspaper reported, and sent in his receipts for review:

“On the first, dated July 13, the nine items added up to $32.93. There was $2.31 in tax. The total should have been $35.24, but next to the ‘total' line on the receipt, it said $35.25. The next receipt, with the same sale date, showed a subtotal of $8.64. The tax was $0.60, so the grand total should have been $9.24. But no. With Chipotle-style math, the total was $9.25.”

I called a Chipotle spokesman, Chris Arnold, who said the chain uses rounding in a few “high vo lume” markets,  including New York, New Jersey and some locations in Boston. The idea is to reduce the time cashiers spend doling out pennies, to keep the lines moving quickly. (In some locations, he said, “there are lines out the door as soon as we open.”) The total, he said, was previously rounded either up or down, to the “nearest nickel.” The result generally was a wash for the restaurant, he said. And for most customers, he said, “I think generally it's been a nonissue.”

But a few penny-pinchers (my description, not Mr. Arnold's) did object. So as of August, he said, the chain is only rounding down. (Also, receipts should now have a line showing the impact of the rounding math.) He said he didn't know of other outlets that round receipts.

Do you think rounding of meal receipts - up or down - to eliminate pennies is a reasonable policy for a busy restaurant?