All 121 Giant Food supermarkets in the Washington area are asking shoppers to pay for their purchases with correct, to-the-penny, change.
Albrecht's Pharmacy in College Park has set three white Styrofoam coffee cups next to its cash registers and posted signs urging customers to drop in their spare pennies.
And the Equitable Trust Bank's Northview branch in Baltimore is offering free coupons for McDonald's hamburgers to customers who cash in $5 worth of pennies.
Suddenly, this area is in the throes of a new -- and mysterious -- penny shortage.
"The problem is spreading," a spokesman for the U.S. Federal Reserve said late yesterday. He said many banks throughout the rest of the nation also are feeling the impact of the shortage.
The shortage, which comes at a time when the U.S. Mint is producing 20 percent more pennies than a year ago, has baffled federal officials.
"There's no rhyme or reason for it," one Reserve representative said.
Penny hoarding is suspected, however.
Higher cooper prices may have contributed to the hoarding, officials said. But they said copper, now selling for less than $1 a pound, would have to double in price before the copper in a penny would be worth more than one cent.
One other theory held that people are saving pennies because of recommendations that the government stop using so much copper to make pennies.
Coupled with the decrease in the available penny supply has been a significant increase in demand for pennies, officials said. The Federal Reserve spokesman recounted one report in which a customer asked his bank for $10,000 in pennies.
The Federal Reserve normally sends pennies to banks from a supply made up of newly minted and old coins. Because of the reduced supply of existing pennies, shipments to banks are being sharply curtailed.
Starting today, Virginia banks will receive only half as many pennies as they received a year ago. The Virginia banks are supplied by the Federal Reserve office in Richmond.
Rationing to banks in Maryland and the District of Columbia began several weeks ago when the Reserve's Baltimore office -- which has less storage capacity for pennies than others -- began limiting penny shipments. The allotment for banks this week, officials in Baltimore said, is 50 to 60 percent of the normal supply.
Washington area banks so far have handled the penny pinch in different ways. American Security Bank and National Savings and Trust Co. are not rationing their customers, officials said yesterday. Riggs National Bank, though not formally rationing, has asked customers if they could manage on fewer pennies.
But National Bank of Washington has stopped providing as many pennies to business customers.
"We're are restricted to $50 per week per store in pennies . . . and we usually get $100," said a spokesman for Giant Food Inc., which banks with NBW. As a result, Giant has posted signs in its supermarkets saying:
"To help us meet a shortage . . . we would appreciate your use of pennies when paying for your order."
Some commercial customers were hit harder than others by the penny shortage. Albrecht's Pharmacy, for example, is receiving only 25 to 50 percent of its normal penny supply from Equitable Trust Bank.
The plastic cups on display at the pharmacy offer customers two options: "Give a penny if you have one. Use one if you need one."
So far, the givers have outnumbered the takers, said Dr. Jacob Raitt, the pharmacy director.