AMERICA'S NEWLY designed bills spend just as well as the old money, but they might not fetch the right change.
As the first holiday retailing season where the new bills are in general circulation opened Friday, store clerks said they have trouble differentiating between new 20s and new 50s, meaning change errors could be more frequent.
Consumer opinions on the new U.S currency vary. The words "play money" come to mind for many, while others think the new design and oversized portraits project a bolder image for one of the world's premiere currencies.
But many retail employees simply hate the new bills.
"It's too hard to tell the 50s from the 20s, especially at this time of year when everybody is hustling and bustling. That can even be a problem for the consumers," said Mark Coughlin, owner of the Metabolife kiosk in Walden Galleria mall.
A clerk at one mall store reported a cash drawer off more than $60 the day new $20 bills hit the mall, a discrepancy attributed to change errors.
Bill Reese said he got a good deal on lunch recently at a local Wendy's. He paid with a new $20 and was handed change for a $50. Reese, manager of Calendar Club in Walden Galleria, gave back the money.
Lorna Gugino knows how the error happened. She almost made the same mistake working the drive-through window at a McDonald's in Amherst.
"You have to pay more attention to the money, but that's hard when it's busy," Ms. Gugino said.
"For anyone in retail who is in a hurry, it can be a big problem," admitted Danyelle Anthon, a sales associate for Ritz Camera.
Store clerks and shoppers are not alone in needing a keener eye for new bills, according to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
The new 50s have been in circulation since October 1997, while the ink dried on the new 20s Sept. 24. People are associating the oversized portrait with a $50 bill. They glance at a $20 bill, see the big picture, and think $50, said James Proctor, a Bureau of Engraving and Printing spokesman.
"We do have people that are having a problem with the 20s and the 50s. It will take some time. That's why we're encouraging people to look more closely at their money, as opposed to glancing at the large portrait and thinking it's a 50," Proctor said.
To avoid confusion:
The bearded guy is Ulysses S. Grant, our 18th president. His face equals $50.
The ornery-looking guy with unkempt hair is Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, who adorns the $20 bill.
The federal government enlarged the portraits and added other security features to make U.S. currency more difficult to counterfeit. A watermark identical to the presidential portrait is visible when a new bill is held to light.
Color-shifting ink makes the number 20 on a front corner of the bill look green straight on, but black when viewed from an angle. Look at the back of a new $20 bill compared with the back of an old $20 bill, and you may notice a new picture of the White House.
"I think it looks fake. I think the big face makes it look funny," said new money critic Jen Strebel, 24, of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Ms. Strebel was at Western New York's largest mall Friday with her grandmother, Sophie Balamut of Syracuse, who said she likes the new money.
"When I get a new 20, I don't spend it. I save them to send as gifts in cards," said Ms. Balamut, 73.
But many seniors said they prefer the familiar look of the old currency, a standard design since 1928.
"It's like anything else. You get used to doing things the same way," said Ernest Meller, a Cheektowaga senior who was mall walking with his wife Friday.
Opinions among art critics also vary, with some prefering the new look and others calling the design "dumbed down" and "antiseptic."
The new bills -- love 'em or hate 'em -- are here to stay, however. New $10 bills and $5 bills will appear in 2000. New $2 bills -- yes, they are still circulated -- and $1 bills will be released at a later date.
The federal government is giving vendors a year to prepare for smaller denominations because some automated vending machines hate the new bills more than human vendors.
Older hardware in many vending machines fails to "read" the new 20s and spits back the bills. The machines, including some used by transit agencies and the U.S. Postal Service, need to by retrofitted with new software.
Dawn Leli, 22, is ready for new-age greenbacks.
"I like the face. It's big, it looks more with today. The old money looks boring, it's too plain. The new money, with the big head, makes it look worth more," said Leli, a Buffalo resident who works at All Wound Up in Walden Galleria.
The Federal Reserve has no plans to remove the old design from circulation. Bills which are dirty, tattered or otherwise damaged are shredded when commercial banks deposit excess money at Federal Reserve branches, including the branch on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. Since older bills typically wear out faster than newer bills, the new design will gradually become the common currency in consumer wallets.
Computer users interested in the features and history of U.S. currency can check out the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Web site at www.moneyfactory.com. The Internet site has fun facts about various bills, including those no longer in circulation.
The $1,000 bill featured Buffalo's own Grover Cleveland. The largest bill ever was a $100,000, featuring Woodrow Wilson, printed from Dec. 18, 1934, through Jan. 9, 1935, for transactions between Federal Reserve branches.
With the new bills, many consumers will need some time to warm to the new look.
"I like the old money better. I'm set in my ways. I've confused the new 20s with the new 50s and vice versa," said Steve Whalin, of Holley, who was shopping with family members Friday.