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AMERICANS ARE IMPATIENT WITH PENNIES

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In trendy Georgetown, Rocklands barbecue restaurant programs its cash register to round off to $5.70 a check that would normally total $5.66.

More than 1,000 Winn-Dixie, Kroger and other supermarkets offer customers the option of raising their tab to the next dollar, with the extra pennies and other small change designated for charity.And uncounted bars, restaurants and other retail establishments across the land are ignoring register exactitude, preferring to allow 1 to 4 cents a transaction - occasionally more - simply to go uncollected.

Americans have become impatient with transactions involving small change, especially pennies. Increasingly, they seek by their behavior to eliminate the 1-cent coin, so prominent in popular imagination and idiom - penny pincher, penny arcade, "a penny saved is a penny earned" - from daily life.

"People are rounding up totals, including tax, in the price and doing all sorts of other things," said Clark Wolf, a Manhattan restaurant consultant. New Yorkers in particular, he added, "really hate pennies a lot."

This disaffection is no doubt encouraged by the fact that inflation has cut purchasing power by 77 percent since 1967, so that even children no longer bother to pick up a stray penny from the street.

Indeed, the unpopularity of the penny - since 1982 made almost entirely of zinc - has grown considerably of late.

As recently as 1990, the General Accounting Office said that legislation to phase it out, along with the half dollar, was a bad idea. Not only are pennies profitable to the government in that their value exceeds production and distribution costs, but the agency said that it had found that people were in no hurry to give them up.

"Demand for the penny remains high and the public is skeptical about the effects, particularly on the poor, of rounding retail cash transactions to the nearest 5 cents," the 1990 report said.

But now, reflecting lower demand despite the proliferation of sales taxes to which the penny's survival has been tied, production is on the wane. After peaking at 16.7 billion in 1982, mintage slumped last year to 9.1 billion as society found ways to avoid counting or carrying - much less saving - pennies. Nickel production also fell last year, to just 58 percent of the record 1989 level.

Signs of penny-shunning include the ubiquitous cups or bowls placed by merchants near registers with little placards inviting customers to take what they need to ease transactions or to leave pennies deemed unworthy of pocket room.

Few, of course, object to being told to "never mind" the few cents they owe or even to a checkout clerk's polite inquiry about participating in Kroger's "Round Up for the Hungry" program.

But what might be called surreptitious rounding, even though the customer may receive a receipt showing the overcharge, can arouse indignation when described to consumers and to those whose job it is to protect them.

"I don't see how they can let a cash register round up," said Constantine Cotsoradis, a program manager for the weights and measures section of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "That's fraudulent."

Jack Gillis, spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America, which has long campaigned against inaccuracy in supermarket scanners, said he has not yet heard complaints about rounding up. But the idea of not giving notice to the customer "absolutely blows my mind," he said.

When questioned, the owner, John Snedden, and others at Rocklands barbecue here said that their aim was merely to speed transactions by eliminating pennies and that the random rounding, though not necessarily to the nearest nickel, lowered as well as raised prices and so did not increase profits. In fact, Snedden said, the computer program in the registers appeared to be rounding down more than up, leaving a loss for the restaurant of $30 a month.