Notes From Hairenik
May 30, 2006

When doing business anywhere in Central Yerevan, no matter whether you go to a busy restaurant, visit a small kiosk selling newspapers, cellular phone fill-up cards, and cigarettes, or even enter a supermarket, you will nearly always hear the Armenian line, “manr chunes?” which means “have any change?” It is a strange phenomenon that has basically spread to all types of businesses, regardless of the size or how seemingly lucrative they are.

Another common request is to have the customer present change to round up the selling amount off to the nearest even dram. For instance, if you purchase some items that amount to 1,700 drams and present a 5,000 dram bill, the cashier asks that you also present 300 dram in coins so that three 1,000 dram notes will be returned. In such instances the cashier would be disappointed when you tell them you don’t have the right amount of coins—distributed in denominations from 10 to 500 dram incidentally—since it means that he or she will have to spend another five seconds to count out the change. One time when visiting my favorite neighborhood grocery store on Nalbandyan Street I could not finalize my purchase of around 5,000 dram worth of food, since the employee did not have change for a 20,000 dram note. Rather than approaching the store manager she sent me out to break the bill. Since it was 10:30 pm and no neighboring businesses were open, I just went home, hungry.

Thus it is a bizarre fact to me at least that predominantly only large dram bills are distributed from ATM machines throughout the city. I bank with HSBC here and I can say that with one exception, I have mostly received withdrawals in 20,000 (or just under $50) and 10,000 dram notes. But a few months ago I used the machine at the main HSBC location on Republic Square on the immediate left as you walk into the lobby. A withdrawal of 100,000 dram yielded mostly 1,000 dram notes and a few 5,000 ones. Although I had a thick, inconvenient wad of money in my wallet, which nevertheless made me feel rich for some reason, I was relieved that I would not be asked for small change when going to the store during the following week. But this is also not necessarily the case. I have even been asked for small change when presenting a 500 dram note to buy less than 300 drams worth of goods. Why the vendor was short on coins was beyond me, since they are generally in wide circulation.

So what’s going on? Why doesn’t the Central Bank of Armenia simply print more small bills if no one seems to have change for a 20,000 or even a 10,000 dram note? It will make things a lot easier for businessmen to do so. This situation makes no sense to me really, and I can only suspect that the reason is due to Armenians generally enjoying to have large notes on their person to make it seem like they are wealthy, albeit psychologically—another manifestation of Armenian logic. I wonder how they feel when they are not able to buy a 300 dram pack of cigarettes with a 20,000 dram note. I also cannot imagine how tourists will react this summer when they try to buy something at Yerevan’s arts and crafts fair, known as the “vernisage,” and find that because they only have cash in large denominations they will have to wander from vendor to vendor until they find someone who can actually hand back change. It should be interesting to say the least.

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Anonymous Hamlet Gevorkyan said...
It is a very annoying phrase, "manr chunnes?" Usually it follows with an unpleasant facial expression that makes you feel like it is a taboo not to have a change in your pocket.
Shouldn't it be the other way around?

We have a long way to go and you have a good point. For big things to change it needs to start from small things.


Anonymous Nessuna said...
Uh, so true. For a while I was boycotting yum-yum donuts after their cashier refused to take 5ooo dram bill, which she eventually did after me pointing out it was not my problem she did not have any change.

Yet I don't think the problem is a lack of coins in curculation, but rather a lack of management, or should I say the absence of one. Having worked as a cashier for several months I always had a steady supply of change from my manager, so it never was a problem.

As for “Vernisage" fair, sellers there are actually interesting in sale, so I doubt they make it hard on customers.

What comes to ATMs, I always do I little trick, say, instead of withdrawing 10.000 drams, I withdraw 9000, so I would end up with at least four 1000 dram notes ;)