The shocking case of the Woolworths fiver

Some years ago, I took a routine trip into Guildford town centre to buy a couple of items I needed from our local Woolies. It was for the shop I had in the town at the time – Quarks Internet Cafe – so I had taken cash from the till to be replaced with the receipt and the change as was our usual practice.

It was a couple of small items and the bill was less than £5. I handed over a tenner and received my change which consisted of some coins and an Isle of Man £5 note. Now, only some people know that Isle of Man coins and notes are not generally accepted by retailers and are, technically, not legal tender in the UK. That said, most banks will exchange them for a UK equivalent. So, not a real problem in practice, but the point was I really would have liked my change in a format that the next shop would accept to save me going to a bank or going back to the shop at the other end of town.

I already knew that many independents didn’t accept Scottish or Northern Irish notes so there was even less chance with a Manx note, and many people are surprised to learn that a retailer is not obliged to accept any form of payment it is not comfortable with. This could be for any reason, but the most common are: suspicion that the note may be forged, a card may have been tampered with or not belong to the person presenting it, the note or coin is defaced beyond recognition or simply that there isn’t enough change in a till to provide change for, say, a larger note. The figures vary depending on which report you read, but around 20-25% of retailers, mostly independents, won’t accept anything except UK sterling simply because of the hassle factor. Hence, I needed the cash in a format I could actually spend comfortably.

Luckily, I noticed as the clearly demotivated teenaged employee handed it over.

“Excuse me” I said in my best British I-don’t-want-to-bother-you-but voice “could you change this for a UK note?”

“Why?” said the spotty face with an obvious trace of irritation. He glared at me like I had just insulted his entire family and challenged him to a duel.

“Because I have other shops to visit and some of them won’t accept this”

“We accepted it, so it’s fine” he snapped back.

“Ok, but I’m not accepting it” I said, a little more firmly now. “Can you change it please?”

“I can’t because I can’t open the till without a sale anyway” he said dismissively and incorrectly. Sometimes it helps being in retail and knowing how these systems work. It didn’t matter anyway because I’d thought of a workaround as I eyed the queue of people behind me.

“OK, well just serve the next customer and when you open the till, simply swap it over”

Sensing that I wasn’t moving, he rolled his eyes and beckoned to the lady behind me who duly paid with a credit card. He opened the till, quickly put the receipt in, and slammed it shut.

“Can’t change it if there’s no cash being handled” he informed me (again incorrectly) by way of explanation.

Sensing this was going to be a silly and entirely unnecessary fight, I decided that since I had become an unwilling participant I was damn well going to win it.

“Well, let’s do it on the next transaction” I said, now standing right next to him in front of the till.

“I haven’t got any more fivers anyway” he informed me, inviting the next customer to the counter.

So, a large branch of Woolies in a town centre on a busy day has no fivers? It didn’t seem likely, although it was possible, so I offered another solution.

“That’s OK, I’ll take it in pound coins. I need some change anyway, so that’ll be better”

“Fine” he spat out in disgust and served the next customer. A small queue had formed behind us, silently observing the stand off and clearly wondering who was going to win the showdown. As the lady paid, in cash, for her items. He opened the till, whilst looking at me out of the corner of his eye. This time, however, he opened the till just a few centimeters so that he could slide in the cash, bent down so only he could see into the tray, and pulled out the 1p change that was required by inserting a finger and guiding it out, before quickly slamming it shut again.

“I haven’t got any pound coins either” he informed me triumphantly, now smirking slightly.

“I’ll take 50p’s then” now staring him in the eye, firmly.

“I haven’t got £5’s worth” he said. He knew all this without actually looking at the till. I was obviously in the presence of a savant-type genius, a superhero with x-ray vision or a fucking idiot and I already had my suspicions that it wasn’t the first two.

“Then I’ll take mixed coins” I replied. I meant to say ‘denominations’ but had momentarily forgotten the word which I felt weaken my severe stance somewhat.

“It’ll have to be be small change” he offered sarcastically.

“I’ll take my chances” was my retort. Also weak, I thought to myself. I was twenty years older than the guy, I should really have had some better responses.

So, customer number three duly came to the battleground having observed the entire process so far and was clearly slightly nervous about it. She paid, silently, whilst I waited by her side at an uncomfortable distance for both of us, and I could tell she was almost dreading the till opening.

And suddenly the moment was upon us. The till opened only, once again, to be held almost completely shut but the adolescent hands that were operating it. The lady customer and I then observed the strange spectacle of this young lad trying to drag her change out of the till coin by single coin without allowing it to be opened. If you’ve never tried this (and I suspect not many people have), it’s not an easy feat.

Concentrating on what he was doing and bending down so only he could see into the tiny gap he was holding open of the coin tray, our cashier had not realized he was no longer alone. A second, obviously more senior, colleague had arrived from stage left and was standing behind him. This all took only a few seconds of course, but he’d been there long enough to observe this part of this strange spectacle unfolding. His eyes glanced into mine, then the lady customer’s and then to the back of the teenager, still bent down in front of the till peering in at forty five degrees.

With a calmness and delivery perfectly suited to a scene in a comedy sketch, he simply asked “Gavin, what ARE you doing?”

The effect was instant. ‘Gavin’ stood up immediately and abruptly as if he had been caught, well, with his hand in the till. It would have been even better if he’d stood up so quickly he’d banged his head on something or knocked over a display, but alas, this was not the case. Real life can sometimes be disappointing like that.

There was a slight pause as Gavin collected his thoughts to answer. He allowed the till drawer to open. It appeared he had forgotten there was a pile of fivers and pound coins in it. It’s a mistake any of us could make. If we were all fucking idiots like Gavin, that is.

Gavin stammered, muttered something about giving change, and started to change colour into a light pink and then a dark red. He clearly had no idea how much his colleague had seen and I can only assume he thought it was everything. He handed the lady her change without making eye contact and then turned to me, relieving my hand of the offending fiver and replacing it with my preferred option of pound coins, before muttering what sounded like an apology and slamming the till shut.

I tried so very hard not to show any emotion and walk away calmly and serenely, but my brain had other ideas, insisting I should form a slightly smug ‘told you so’ expression such as a child might do when being proven right in an argument. In the end I defeated my own brain before it could rebel by turning and walking away triumphantly. I had won. The noble Battle of the Fiver, as it would be hereafter ever known, and honoured by a blue plaque on the side of a building in future years, had been won by me, the great smiter of front line staff. I, the great and victorious purchaser of goods, was now unstoppable in this town or any other. I, the Consumer Champion of Middle England, would be revered across all the land.

I marched out of Woolworths with a smile on my face and a spring in my step and as I walked up the hill, I went to put the coins I was still holding in my pocket. Opening my palm, I saw there were only four. FOUR. I looked and looked again, and then realized I’d never actually checked. Gavin, it seems, had launched one final counter attack as he was going down in flames and emerged victorious. In my mind I could imagine his smirk returning as his senior colleague left, knowing he’d had the last laugh.


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