Will Jefferson dollar buck the trend?

The U.S. Mint launched the Thomas Jefferson dollar Wednesday, the third coin in the presidential dollar series, with a splashy event at the Jefferson Memorial including Jefferson look-alikes, quizzes and a coin exchange.

But does anyone care?

It's been six months since the first presidential dollar coin, George Washington, entered circulation. But so far, just 26% of Americans have seen the gold-colored coins, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,012 adults conducted Aug. 3-5.

"I actually don't know when they are going to be available, or if they are available," says Lyndsey Callan, 26, of Mishawaka, Ind. "Maybe I'm just not looking in the right places."

Federal Reserve banks, which buy coins from the Mint based on demand from banks that serve consumers and businesses, have bought fewer coins with each president. Fed banks ordered approximately 303 million George Washington $1 coins and 200 million John Adams $1 coins, the second in the series, according to the Fed. The initial order for the Jefferson coins is 170 million.

Jo Fortunato, 75, of Pearl River, N.Y., got the Washington dollar coins for her five grandchildren at a local bank when they first came out.

"I gave them away and forgot about them. I haven't heard anything about them since," says the retired school secretary. "I just assumed it didn't work."

Mint Director Edmund Moy says the initial reaction to the coin has been "encouraging," noting that hundreds of millions of coins have entered the economy in a few months. But, "There are also some things that we need to work on."

One of the biggest problems has been that some customers have reported that their banks don't have the coins when they ask for them, an issue the Mint is addressing, he says. The Mint is also working with retailers to get them to use the coins more. Coins are also available at the Mint's website.

Coins face challenges

But Moy says that if 26% of those polled say they have seen the coins, that means that they must be receiving them not just from banks but also from retailers.

"That's a real positive sign that they're beginning to filter into everyday use of the economy," he says.

And he also says the Mint's research has shown that most Americans are at least familiar with the coin, something that has happened despite very little advertising or marketing from the government.

The government spent more than $67 million to promote the Sacagawea coin, the $1 coin that preceded the presidents, from 1998 to 2001. The promotion included a national advertising campaign and a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Faced with little demand, the Mint stopped producing the Sacagaweas in 2002, except for collectors.

This time, Congress allotted $5 million over the first year to promote the presidential dollar coins. The Mint has engaged in a more grass-roots campaign with no advertising. Instead, it is trying to build interest in the coins with events like the one held Wednesday in the nation's capital.

Moy says the Mint has gotten the go-ahead from Congress to spend money on a national advertising campaign that will begin in three to six months.

The Mint knew it had a challenge on its hands when Congress mandated that the government agency create a dollar coin program similar to the state quarters in which the Mint would introduce four $1 coins each year depicting the presidents in the order in which they served. The program is set to run at least through 2016 and will include only presidents who have died.

Unlike quarters, dollar coins face stiff competition from dollar bills. Sixty-five percent of those polled this month said they prefer bills to coins. Studies, including those from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have found that consumers will embrace dollar coins only if dollar bills are pulled from circulation.

The dollar coins have generated interest among collectors. Several production glitches, including one in which workers forgot to put the lettering on the edges, have added to collectors' excitement as hobbyists sought to collect the error coins. Edge lettering is appearing on coins for the first time since 1932.

Moy says that improvements in the production process mean that virtually no errors will appear in the coin by the end of the year.

According to the USA TODAY/Gallup survey, 24% of Americans either are collecting the presidential dollar coins or plan to start a collection. Thirty-seven percent say they are collecting the state quarters.

Moving beyond collectors

Frankie Pooser, 59, a retiree in Fort Myers, Fla., has bought two 25-coin rolls each of the Washington and Adams coins at his local bank. A longtime coin collector, he is keeping most of the dollar coins and plans to pass them along to his six grandchildren one day.

"Some of the designs are really nice," he says.

He has tried to spend the dollar coins, but has just about given up. Many cashiers assume they are quarters and tell Pooser he owes more money. Others just ask him what they are, leading Pooser to explain to cashiers what the dollar coins are and how much they are worth.

"I don't like using them. I'm just saving them for collecting," he says.

It's that attitude that the Mint is trying to change.

"We want people to use these," director Moy says. "Originally, collectors got really excited about this, and they helped pull these coins through the economy. But ultimately, it's Americans seeing its use in everyday commerce that's really going to boost the coin."

Greater use of dollar coins instead of bills in everyday transactions would save the government hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Coins last about 30 years, more than 16 times longer than dollar bills.

The Federal Reserve estimated in 1995 that replacing dollar bills with coins would save $500 million a year. The savings would likely be much bigger today, because there are far more $1 bills in circulation than when the Fed made its estimate more than a decade ago.

William Buckingham, 46, of Delta, Pa., says he'd be willing to use dollar coins, but he still hasn't received any as change. In fact, in order to get a few to send to friends in England and Ireland he had to go to the bank and order them and then wait a few weeks for them to come in.

"Until you get people to accept using the new coin, I think people are always going to gravitate to the dollar bill," says Buckingham, a utility technician at a power station. "Money all spends the same. Give me a paper dollar, give me a coin dollar. If it's in a form of a coin or form of a bill, I'll use it."

Contributing: Barbara Hansen

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