- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

Safeway's decision this week to use the Sacajawea dollar coins is good news for the vending-machine industry one of the golden currency's biggest proponents.

Acceptance of the new coin has been minimal, despite an aggressive yearlong marketing campaign by the government.

Supporters of the Sacajawea dollar, which was introduced in January of last year, say participation from retailers like Safeway will help the coin gain wider acceptance.

"We knew this would be an uphill battle," said Tom McMahon, senior vice president of the National Automatic Merchandise Association, the Chicago-based trade group that represents food- and beverage-vending machine owners. "A lot of [its success] depends on the retail industry's involvement."

Safeway began distributing the coins as change this week. That follows participation from Allfirst bank, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Postal Service, which have made efforts to get the coins circulated.

"If McDonald's or 7-Eleven or any of those folks [got involved], I think this coin will be a huge success," Mr. McMahon said.

The coins also are being used around the country as change in mass transit and parking-meter payments.

About 1.2 billion coins have been made and about 700 million are in circulation, but not every coin is being used for purchases. Many people are holding on to the new coins as a novelty item instead of using them a trend Mr. McMahon believes won't last forever.

The Sacajawea replaced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, which is no longer in production but still circulates.

About half of the 6 million food-and beverage-vending machines in the country accept the Sacajawea coin, and officials expect nearly all vending machines to accept the currency by summer 2002.

Machines made after 1980, which accept Susan B. Anthony coins, also can accept the new golden dollar. Vending-machine owners just need to reconfigure the existing machines. While it's a fairly simply process, Mr. McMahon said it takes time to get all the machines switched over.

The vending-machine industry, which lobbied Congress for 10 years to authorize the new dollar coin, is doing its share to get the coins moving.

They are using Sacajawea coins in bill-changing machines. For instance, instead of receiving change for a five-dollar bill in quarters, the machine dispenses five Sacajawea coins.

Also, vending machines, especially those with higher-priced items like sandwiches, are returning the golden dollar as change.

Owners also are putting decals on their machines to remind customers, who may have the coins in their pockets, that they can use them in those machines.

The association's members have implemented a program that requires their employees to promise to use up to 10 Sacajawea coins per month for daily purchases. So far, the industry promises to spend $327,000 in golden coins per month, Mr. McMahon said.

The vending-machine industry is benefiting greatly from the coins, Mr. McMahon said. The 99 percent to 100 percent success rate of the coin, compared to the 85 percent success rate of a dollar bill guarantees more sales for the industry.

"We're going to start capturing sales we've been losing," he said.

The Sacajawea coin makes dispensing change easier and machines are less likely to jam, which results in lower maintenance costs for the vending companies.

But don't expect dollar bills to be eliminated from vending machines altogether.

"We're a long way off from that," Mr. McMahon said.

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