Germany readies for change exchange

The government launched a huge ad campaign this month to get Germans to trade old marks for euros.

Imagine Alan Greenspan and Regis Philbin teaming up to remind you to check under the sofa cushions for spare change.

That's essentially the message that Germans are getting this month, in a massive ad campaign aimed at persuading people to empty pockets and piggy banks and take their hoarded pfennigs to the bank.

The TV, radio, newspaper, and magazine ads feature Bundesbank President Ernst Welteke chatting with the popular host of Germany's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

Since the introduction of the euro, the European Union's common currency, into financial markets two years ago, the hoopla had quieted down. For many EU residents, it has been an abstract unit of stock markets and bank transactions.

But in eight months, on Jan. 1, 2002, the euro is due to become a reality at cash registers, vending machines, buses, and banks.

The European Central Bank is planning a heavy media blitz this fall, to familiarize 300 million people with the look and value of the new coins and bills.

In Italy, a Euro Circus goes from city to city. Spain has a Euro Bus touring mountain villages. A television character helps French do the math of translating familiar francs into euros.

But nowhere is the media blitz as heavy as in Germany, where the ad campaign is asking residents for help.

For sheer volume of the old and new currencies to be exchanged, Germany poses the greatest logistical challenge among the 12 euro-zone countries.

In addition to circulating 71,500 tons of new coins and 2.5 billion new bills in the first weeks of 2002, German banks and retailers will have to handle the withdrawal of 28.5 billion old mark coins, weighing some 100,000 tons, or nine times as much as the Eiffel Tower.

"Germany is the first country doing it, and it's a good way to make people participate actively in the introduction of the euro," says Jean-Pierre Malivoir, who is coordinating the euro campaigns for the European Commission, the EU's governing body in Brussels. "The Germans are not enthusiastic about the euro, but they know they'd better prepare for it."

At peak times during the transition period, officials predict that up to eight times more cash than usual will be on the move on German roads, potentially causing transport and storage nightmares and requiring extremely strict security precautions.

Central bank managers are scratching their heads over ways to find enough storage, relying on old military bunkers and parking garages. With the 2 billion old marks and pfennigs it will get back, the state of Hessen expects to fill 12,000 containers - a stockpile large enough to cover a football field.

Security-van operators are negotiating with various local governments to get around the normal red tape. Among other concessions, they want permission to use bus and pedestrian lanes in the streets.

The German security-van operators' association fears that all the 2,500 special armed vehicles used to transport bills in Germany could be tied up, unless stores and banks get their euros early and people don't wait until the last minute to bring their marks to the bank.

"The problem with the euro isn't that we're going to be distributing euros, but also that we're taking back all these old marks," says Martin Hildebrand, head of the security-van operators' association. "The real problem is that everything must be done at the same time."

While a government plan will encourage stores and banks to get the new currency as of September, residents can help relieve the crunch early next year by bringing their unused pfennings to the bank early.

"The level of awareness in the public and the number of people who really know about the euro is quite low," says Jean Rodriguez of the European Central Bank. "There's really a need to start now."

The Berlin government estimates that every resident keeps an average of 100 coins at home.

These 8 billion "sleeping" coins, as they are known, at rest under mattresses - and in piggy banks, sock drawers, jars, and other containers - make up a third of all coins in circulation in Germany.

"For a lot of Germans, collecting coins is a hobby," says Steffen Graff of the Conrad and Burnett agency, which designed the Bundesbank ad campaign to "wake up" the sleeping coins. "This is a people that collects everything," says Mr. Graff.

At the launch of the three-week campaign earlier this month, Bundesbank president Ernst Welteke said, "We want to put this in the consciousness of people."

In Germany, cash remains the most prevalent form of payment, says Holger Berndt, president of the Germany's association of public banks.

Paying with cash "gives you an overview over your money," says Patrick Dickel, a German who adds that he shuns using his credit cards as much as possible.

Isele Weigand saw the birth of the mark. When World War II ended, she was 20 years old and had no home and no possessions.

Ms. Weigand remembers how every pfennig she could put her hand on was cherished then.

To her and to many others of her generation, they still are, as a symbol of Germany's economic recovery and stability.

While she hates to give up the mark, she's not going to let her savings die by failing to exchange it for the new currency.She saved those pfennigs - every single one, she says - for her three grandchildren. But already she's emptied jars and jars filled with the familiar little yellow coins. While she hates to give up the mark, she's not going to let her savings die by failing to exchange it for the new currency.

"Every pfennig counts," she says. "Today there's little understanding for it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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