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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 09:39 GMT
Supermarkets gear up for the euro
Euro decorations at Delhaize
At Herstal, even Xmas takes second place to the euro
The arrival of the euro is imminent, with the first coins due to be handed out at the end of this week. BBC News Online's James Arnold is on a tour of the eurozone to take the region's temperature ahead of this momentous changeover. His third report comes from the southern Belgian town of Herstal, near Liege.

You can tell the staff at Nicolas Barrale's supermarket understand the euro: they all wear badges saying so.

Delhaize manager Nicolas Barrale
Nicolas Barrale, euro-enthusiast
You may miss the badges, but you can't overlook the sparkling decorations, in which the euro symbol is mingled with more traditional Christmas imagery.

Every spare meter of wall space in the Delhaize supermarket is plastered with euro posters, and euro banners dangle from the ceiling.

Mr Barrale has little choice but to turn his supermarket into a temple to the single currency.

Delhaize, the biggest supermarket chain in the country most closely associated with the European Union, cannot afford to put a foot wrong on 1 January.

Educating staff...

For Delhaize, 1 January represents the culmination of a three-year changeover, which began when euro prices were discreetly added to labelling in 1999.

A euro poster in Delhaize, Herstal
Forget the franc conversion, feel the value
But most of the work could only be done more or less at the last minute.

To win over staff, the supermarket has run euro role-playing sessions, testing cashiers on their ability to calculate euro prices quickly and without wasting useful small-denomination coins.

By way of incentive, all Delhaize staff are being given a parcel of euro notes and coins next week, courtesy of the firm.

... and soothing shoppers

Winning over customers has demanded a little more cunning.

Although there is little opposition to the euro, especially in a border town like Herstal, so dependent on international trade, the supermarket worries that customers just won't get the hang of the new money quickly enough.

Delhaize worker Jacqueline Denis
A fully paid-up euro expert
The exchange rate, at 40.3399 Belgian francs to the euro, does not make for easy mental arithmetic.

And because Belgian law forbids Delhaize from rounding up prices, and its shareholders would frown on it rounding them down, the supermarket is left with bafflingly clunky euro prices - 4.37 euros, 23.19 euros and so on.

By way of solution, Delhaize has urged its customers to forget about trying to calculate the franc equivalents in their heads.

Instead, the supermarket has prominently advertised the euro prices of its 10 top-selling items - coffee, loo roll, oven chips and so - in the hope that shoppers will adopt them as reference prices.

Details, details

But the devil is in the detail.

Swapping over currencies has demanded an extraordinary amount of little jobs, including switching over the chain's loyalty-card system and reconfiguring all the fruit and vegetable scales.

Cash registers have had to be redesigned to accommodate the extra coins that come with the euro.

And the chain's fleet of trolleys have been rejigged to accept several different euro coins, as well as Belgian francs and supermarket tokens.

Dull, but vital

Suddenly, the boring business of handling cash - traditionally a bothersome detail for retailers - has become top priority for supermarket managers.

Belgian euro coins
Euro coins: A weighty burden for Belgians
As elsewhere in the eurozone, Belgium's shops will be running on a dual-currency system for the first two months of 2002.

In theory, customers can pay and receive change in either denominations.

But that demands a huge amount of work: Delhaize is having to increase cash deliveries to at least one per day to each supermarket, compared with a couple a week previously, in order to keep pace with demand.

Cashiers, meanwhile, have to remember to put euros in the cash register, but to keep francs separately in temporary collection bags.

And the euro makes for heavy lifting: since it's more reliant on coins than the largely banknote-based franc, it weighs a good deal more.

Delhaize had to have its coffers reinforced, and there were even worries that some stores might have structural problems as a result.

Losing the habit

Understandably, Delhaize is keen to wean its customers off the franc as quickly as possible.

Euro posters in Delhaize, Herstal
Delhaize's euro propaganda is everywhere
Mr Barrale will give in change in euros unless otherwise requested, and he is awaiting delivery of a machine, into which shoppers will dump franc coins in return for euro-denominated store vouchers.

Catherine Alexandre, a communications manager for Delhaize, says the chain has already seen a surge in Belgians paying high amounts in cash - a sign that many shoppers are already ridding themselves of surplus francs.

"After the first two weeks of January, the worst should be over," she says.

Worth the effort?

Delhaize has certainly gone to greater lengths than some of its rivals.

In the much larger French-owned Carrefour hypermarket across the road in Herstal, there is little indication that anything out of the ordinary is imminent.

In neighbouring France, Germany and the Netherlands, few supermarkets seem to have put much effort into their euro PR campaigns.

By and large, Mr Barrale's customers seem to appreciate the effort.

"I suppose it is useful to have a lot of information available," shrugs Etienne Hespel, who has stopped by Delhaize for a six-pack of beer.

"But to be honest, I really just don't want to think about the euro too much."


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