By Louis Golino, special to CoinWeek …..
On August 25, United States Mint Director David J. Ryder and several of his key staff members held a roundtable discussion with numismatic media representatives from several print and online publications regarding the Mint’s recent efforts to upgrade its order management systems to better handle the recent, sharp increase in demand for its products – at a time when production at the Mint continues to face ongoing challenges to its operations from the COVID-19 pandemic, which Ryder called a “Black Swan event”.
(A “Black Swan event” is an unforeseen event or circumstance with major, severe consequences and is a term first used by finance expert and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2001.)
This was the second such event held by the Mint with the media following the May 4 discussion on the new Morgan and Peace silver dollar program.
Sharply Increased Demand
Analysts attribute the big increase in demand to a booming coin market, a strong precious metals market with ongoing shortages of physical metal, and the considerable secondary market potential of many recent U.S. Mint products compared to many past issues that have underperformed and lost value.
For example, the 2021-CC Morgan silver dollar that was presold in May for $85 has recently been selling for $500 on eBay, while many modern Proof sets, especially those issued in the 1970s and ’80s, sell for close to face value.
Associate Director of Sales and Marketing Matt Holben and his deputy, Kirk Gillis, provided overviews on recent “key initiatives designed to enhance both the user experience and overall satisfaction of customers,” as the Mint noted in its invitation to the event.
In addition, Chief Financial Officer Kristy McNally spoke briefly about the U.S. Mint’s American Eagle Palladium program in response to a question about how rising palladium spot prices had pushed the price of those coins up substantially in 2020 and 2021. [The 2019 and 2020 palladium coins are still available for $3,050, while the price of the 2021 issue will be announced just before its September 2 release. In May, the metal touched an all-time high above $3,000 but is currently down to about $2,400 – making it still the most valuable of the metals used to strike American coins. –Louis Golino]
Mr. Holben said the Mint continues to encourage customers to use the enrollment process whenever products can be ordered that way–as was the case with certain recent releases such as the 2021-W and 2021-S American Silver Eagle Proof coins that sold out instantly–because that allows the U.S. Mint to help gauge demand. He noted that, compared to the two prior years, there was a huge increase in demand for those items with 2021 sales ending in 30 minutes, vastly exceeding the volume that took nine months to sell in 2019 and 2020 and putting a lot of strain on the order management system when the 2021 coins were released.
Several comments were made by these officials about recent efforts to better gauge demand for Mint products than they have in the past, which often resulted in excess inventory.
As for the bullion coin programs, Mr. Holben said that the U.S. Mint now receives quarterly demand projections from its network of 13 Authorized Purchasers and that they get “real-time demand for commemoratives” based on actual orders received, which also helps recipients of the surcharges from the sales of the coins to receive the proceeds sooner.
Mr. Gillis added that, in the past, “[t]he Mint used to produce to surplus.” [Which in some cases led to the melting of unsold coins. –LG]. He added that with enrollments, customers can cancel their order if they so choose (provided they do it within a certain timeframe). He added that thanks to improvements in integrated software for payment options, the Mint went from processing 96 orders per second to 217.
Director Ryder pointed out that because of the pandemic the U.S. Mint has had mandatory overtime for coin production employees six days a week in order to produce a near-record amount of circulating coinage because of the well-known issue of those coins not circulating through the economy sufficiently since the start of the pandemic, creating shortages of available coins at many banks and retail establishments. He also stated that the Mint is “one of the leading organizations to tackle COVID successfully.”
Regarding the bulk purchase program that allows certain coin dealers to acquire 10% of a total product limit in advance of regular sales for a 5% premium, Mr. Holben noted that one of the advantages of that is that those companies that participate must agree not to use bots, or scripted programs, to circumvent order limits or otherwise manipulate the ordering process to their advantage.
Paul Gilkes of Coin World said he had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to identify the names of the 18 companies in that program, but Mr. Holben said that the Mint is legally prevented from doing that without their permission.
Blogger Scott Barman, a former ANA governor, asked what law prevented this disclosure, noting that, in his understanding, the names of those companies must be made public unless national security is involved. Mr. Holben said the issue could not be resolved at a meeting without any lawyers.
Coin dealer and current ANA governor Rob Oberth noted that he personally has been hearing more positive feedback about ordering from the Mint than he used to and that some dealers also get locked out during those instant and quick sell-outs.
I asked about the problems with the checkout procedure many readers have reported when ordering high-demand coins and noted that there has been a substantial increase in those problems over the past two years–including the more recent issue of not being able to check out after items are placed in shopping carts and payment and address information is confirmed, leading to many attempts to finalize the purchase. Mr. Holben responded that the U.S. Mint now has 100,000 more customers, which puts a lot of extra pressure on the order management and other systems.
Director Ryder added that when he started, revenue was declining, so the Mint “went after new customers with creative new products” to increase interest in the Mint and that he “blames himself for not being able to handle the increased volume fully.”
He also commented that, unlike other world mints that had to suspend production for extended periods, the U.S. Mint has handled this situation with much less disruption [With just a couple brief shutdowns at certain Mint facilities but never all of them. –LG]
Blocking the Bots
Mr. Gillis said that before the changes to the Mint site to block scripts (bots), 60% of the online traffic was from users using such techniques to get around ordering restrictions. The Mint recently obtained authorization to block bots, though it is unclear if the Mint has the legal authority to block all bots. The recent release of the 2021-W Proof Silver Eagle, he added, was the first major release not plagued by bots. He said it also helped that the household limit was reduced to three [Which did not apply to enrollment orders. –LG].
He said that many different systems are involved in this process and that the Mint is considering options like a waiting room other mints use. But ultimately, he noted, “every system has its limits.”
Mr. Gilkes asked about advance pre-orders for the silver dollars, and Mr. Holben responded that “no matter how much is done in advance, market demand is hard to get right” for such programs, and that doing advance pre-orders could result in more cancellations.
As for the delay until October for the shipping of those coins, Holben said it is because the coins have not been made yet, as well as manufacturing constraints from the pandemic that result in longer production time. He also pointed out that to produce more silver dollars, as many collectors wanted this year, would require reducing silver bullion coin production – which might be done, contingent on the results of future customer and market surveys conducted by outside firms.
Director Ryder then made concluding remarks on how the pandemic hit just as the new American Eagle reverses were being implemented and while they were in the middle of having key legislation in Congress passed on the silver dollars and the new quarter program that debuts in January. He said the Mint was fortunate to get those through before the pandemic shutdowns began and concluded with a plea: “Give us a little patience as we work through things.”
Additionally, Ryder added that the American Women quarters program could generate as much as $8 billion over the next decade for the U.S. Mint. In an email response sent to me yesterday answering my request for clarification, Mint spokesman Michael White added:
“Initially, the projected revenue for both numismatics and circulating were $8 billion. However, based on changes to the 10-year quarter programs, the numbers were adjusted to $6.7 Billion in combined revenue: $5.8 Billion in circulating coinage and $911.1 million in numismatics.“
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Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.
His column “The Coin Analyst”, special to CoinWeek, won the 2021 Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) Award for Best Numismatic Column: United States Coins – Modern. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”. In 2015, “The Coin Analyst” received an NLG award for Best Website Column.
In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.