Atown in the heart of rural Ireland, with a population of just 4,000, is doing much of its business in euros, months ahead of the official changeover date. Eighteen months ago, in a local chamber of commerce initiative, the County Galway town of Loughrea offered to become Ireland's euro laboratory, a testing ground for the problems that commerce and consumers will face when the country switches to the new currency on January 1. Sixty businesses volunteered to take part in the experiment, designated the Loughrea Euro Town Project, and 30 were selected. "We wanted a mix of businesses, from retail and manufacturing to professional services, to see the difficulties experienced across various sectors," says project organiser Michael Callaly. The key to a successful Euro transition, he now reports, is preparation and training. Today, Loughrea is the best prepared town in Ireland for the New Year changeover. Shops have dual prices on all items, while new cash registers (at a cost of up to I£7,500) offer receipts in both euros and Irish money. They will later be adjusted to give detailed prices in euros only. Some businesses, using euro cheques drawn on Irish pound bank accounts, have been invoicing clients and paying suppliers in the new currency, while others have been preparing staff payslips in euros and Irish pounds. Their common complaint, however, has been the poor software available, with the result that some suppliers are now using Loughrea as a test site for improved packages. Rose Morley, who owns a combined grocery, delicatessen and off-licence in the town, was one of those. It's not the technology that bugs her but the 10p lollipop, because schoolchildren are a big part of her business. "I am going to have difficulty telling them that from January, the 10p lollipop suddenly costs 13 cents." As for her older customers, she offers a simple formula: "Until they get used to the new currency I'll change their Irish money into euros when they come into the shop. Then, with the dual pricing, they'll be able to buy what they want without any worries about what the Irish pound is worth against the euro, or vice-versa." As a result of her involvement in the project she feels "totally comfortable" about the changeover. However, Gerard Connaughton, proprietor of Express Stop, another family grocery, is annoyed at repeated claims that retailers will make a killing from the changeover. "I won't be rounding up my prices," he insists. "Customers will be able to see from the dual pricing what they are the week before the euro and they'll be the same the week after." As a member of RGDATA, he will sign up to the euro national code devised by director of consumer affairs Carmel Foley and display its honesty logo'. Foley advises consumers to shop only in premises displaying the logo and has promised close policing of prices. Retailers who take unfair advantage will lose the right to display the logo and will be named and shamed, Foley says. As an additional protection, every household in the Republic is to be given a free electronic euro converter, so shoppers may do their own price monitoring. Despite assurances, the Irish Consumers' Association wants a price freeze imposed for the changeover, with heavy fines for those using the euro to push up prices. The government is opposed to the idea, although former consumer affairs minister Pat Rabbitte supports it because he thinks many businesses are rounding up prices now. Meanwhile, retailers and multiples are training staff, helped by 50,000 videos prepared by Fas, the state's industrial training agency. Mandate, the Irish shopworkers' union, is watching developments. and has delayed any decision on lodging a pay claim until it knows how much extra work the changeover will bring." But in Loughrea, the locals are basking in their newly minted image. A recent visitor, EU economic affairs commissioner Pedro Solbes, publicly praised their commitment and toasted their enthusiastic adoption of the euro. For them, the only hassle about the changeover is waiting for the new coins and notes to arrive. n {{FEATURES }}