Business

Big money from small change: Small firms cash in on unused foreign currency at Japan's airports

Kyodo

Unused foreign bills and coins brought home by Japanese travelers as well as leftover yen nestling in the pockets of departing foreign visitors are creating business opportunities at the nation’s airports.

A Tokyo-based venture began setting up machines last year allowing travelers to exchange leftover currency for electronic money or gift vouchers.

“There’s no way I can use” foreign currency at home, said a 21-year-old university student returning from the United States in January, who converted several dollars into gift vouchers at a Pocket Change machine. He was just one of many travelers at Haneda airport changing money at the machines, which can be operated in four languages — Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

Pocket Change Inc.’s machines accept the U.S. dollar, euro, Chinese yuan, South Korean won or Japanese yen, and both bills and coins, offering a range of e-money and vouchers for those living in Japan and abroad. For residents of Japan, e-money options include Rakuten Inc.’s Edy and Aeon Co.’s Waon.

Users can also choose vouchers from Amazon.com. Inc. or other outlets, or make a charitable donation with their unspent holiday cash.

Installing its first machine at Haneda in February 2017, Pocket Change now has least 15 units in Japan. The other airports that are now home to its machines are New Chitose, Chubu Centrair International, Kansai International and Fukuoka airports, and the firm is also operating units at hotels and department stores.

The amount of cash held by travelers cannot be ignored, according to Kenta Matsui, 37, corepresentative of Pocket Change. “We hope they will convert it and make use of it.”

Pocket Change makes a profit on conversion rates and sales promotion fees from its business clients.

A 2015 online survey of 1,000 people by Sony Bank found 86.5 percent had leftover foreign currency after overseas trips.

Asked what they did with the money, 63.1 percent said they just kept it at home, with the amount averaging ¥18,000 per person. Coins in particular tend to accumulate as currency exchange counters don’t generally accept them.

Foreign visitors often spend the last of their yen coins on capsule toys at gacha machines.

American computer engineer Ken Crouch, 39, spent four leftover ¥100 coins at one of T-Arts Co.’s machines at Narita airport in February, winning a stamp toy featuring Rilakkuma — one of his daughter’s favorite cartoon characters — before boarding a flight back to the United States.

T-Arts has installed around 630 machines at Narita, Kansai, Fukuoka, Asahikawa, Hanamaki, Niigata and Shizuoka airports.

Its machines at airports generate about five times more in monthly sales than those set up elsewhere, according to the company.

Coronavirus banner