So I’m driving down Cameron Street this afternoon on my way into downtown to tie off a few odds and ends. As I got off 81, my “low fuel” light came on, meaning I only had another 30 – 50 miles until my Fit sputtered to a stop. I pulled into the Sunoco A-Plus at 1101 Cameron Street for fuel. I was feeling a little under the weather, so I also figured I’d pick up a V8 Splash (kiwi-strawberry, because it matters) while I was there.
I generally don’t carry cash around. Everybody takes plastic. Gas stations always do, and Sunoco, being one of the larger regional C-store chains, certainly does. I grabbed my drink, walked up to the counter, and went to swipe my card.
“No card. $5 minimum.”
I asked the cashier if he was being serious. I mean, I can understand a minimum purchase at Mom & Pop’s Coffee Shop, but Sunoco operates almost 5000 stores in 24 states. Surely they have a bulk rate with the card processor, and if they don’t, they can certainly afford the per-transaction fee.
“No you can’t do that. Have to buy $5 or more.”
The kicker is, Sunoco can’t do that. Visa and Mastercard both expressly prohibit merchants from requiring a minimum purchase amount and/or imposing a surchargefor credit card purchases. Visa and Mastercard both want you to use your card as much as frigging possible, everywhere, all the time, for everything, always, no exceptions, end of discussion, period. The merchant pays them a processing fee, either as a bulk monthly rate or as a per-transaction percentage, every time you use your card.
I’m a little more sympathetic to a small independent merchant already struggling to compete against The Big Guys. A minimum purchase amount at an independent grocer or coffee shop, while still technically prohibited, wouldn’t really bother me. But Sunoco is a pretty big company with pretty wide profits — ESPECIALLY these days. So as a matter of point, or maybe just because I’m coming down with the flu and thus irritable to begin with, I called them in to Visa.
In doing a little bit of digging on the matter, I found that the general process of these things goes something like this: On the first complaint, Visa sends out a compliance letter to the merchant. They give the merchant a one-quarter (90-day) grace period to educate their employees an correct the matter. Subsequent complaints outside of the grace period incur fines and penalties. Excessive or egregious complaints may result in suspension or revocation of their merchant ID.
If you want to report a merchant for this or any other violation (apparently requiring photo ID is also a violation, unless your card isn’t signed), you should first try contacting whatever bank issued your card. If your bank seems clueless or insists that minimum purchases are permissible (as mine did), call Visa directly at 800-VISA-911. MasterCard’s number is 800-MASTERCARD.
Please keep in mind that reporting your neighborhood pizza shop or local farmer might not be in anyone’s best interest. They’re probably already struggling under today’s skyrocketing expenses and depressed economy. This doesn’t make the minimum purchase or surcharge permissible, but consider the possible outcomes: Your favorite independent restaurant may stop taking cards, raise their prices across the board, or worse, close up shop.
But when it comes to Sunoco, Exxon, Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, et al, rest assured that they have the profitability to not be jerks with their credit card policy.