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European Retailers, Consumers Prepare to Trade in Euros - 2001-12-28

E-day - January 1. That's the day when 12 countries in Western Europe make the switch from their local currencies to the euro. It's an unprecedented event that has taken 10 years to plan and that will cost more than $10 billion to implement.

In France, it was a good Christmas season for those selling luxury goods. Many people beat the changeover to the euro by using the francs they never declared as income to buy items of value. "A lot of people are spending the money right now," said Eric Chaney, an economist for Morgan Stanley, "just to avoid showing the banknotes in the bank. They are suspicious that maybe the tax administration will do something about that and we see to some extent a strong consumer spending especially for luxury goods."

Perhaps belatedly, people have realized they are going to have to switch currencies. The exchange of money is supposed to be completed by the end of February. Millions of notes and coins have already been distributed to banks. People can buy a few euro coins, but they won't see the bills until the first of the year.

Advertisements running throughout the euro zone have tried to show people what euro notes look like - especially their security features. Peter Walter, the head cashier of the German national bank, the Bundesbank, is confident these security measures will enable people to see the difference between a real euro and a fake one. "We are doing quite a lot to make the security features familiar, and we hope of course that when the euro is introduced people are familiar enough with these security features that they can distinguish a euro banknote from counterfeit," he said.

Counterfeiting is the big worry for the authorities, but consumers seem a lot more worried about price increases. Merchants have converted prices into euros - and many appear to be significantly higher. Economist Eric Chaney says people are complaining of price gouging. "We have found that maybe inflation accelerated by as much as a half-percent because of this conversion," he said, "during the conversion some prices went down, some went up, but more prices went up than down."

The French Government has assigned 200 officials to check prices and take action against gougers.

Businesses say some increases are necessary, to cover the costs of converting computer systems to euros and training their personnel. Jurgen Pfister, an economist at Germany's Commerzbank, says some businesses will lose money because of the changeover. "This is certainly the case in some parts where money plays a big role, cash plays a big role, so I would say in the banking industry and partly in the retail sector," he said.

It's estimated that banks and retailers will pay 95 percent of the cost of actually introducing the currency. And that's by design. The European Central bank figured the best way to swap money is to have people give retailers old currency and get euros back in change.

And banks will give people more euros when they need them. That means one of the critical parts of the switch-over will be converting automatic teller machines and filling them with euros.

There's expected to be a fair amount of confusion and uncertainty as people start to use the new money. In an attempt to speed things up, some retailers in Paris will allow people to use credit cards for almost any purchase, no matter how low the price - normally there's a fairly high minimum. Using plastic instead of cash may be one way to avoid the headaches of a new currency - at least until the bills show up.