Cameron Street A-Plus Smackdown

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.

7 thoughts on “Cameron Street A-Plus Smackdown”

  1. Something new has also recently been happening at the PA State Liquor Stores. Pay with a credit card and they automatically want to see your ID. I would think the state system is large enough to know the rules that VISA/Master card have. I didn’t know them myself; thanks for this article and the education. I hope businesses take notice.

  2. –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.–

    But who says this station is actually owned by Sunoco and is not an independent merchant, leasing the name and gas from Sunoco? I understand your complaints but I think you are going to find out this is an independent merchant not owned by Sunoco and hence not bound by the same rules from Visa. A quick way to find out: compare their gas prices w/ that of a shop you know is owned by Sunoco. If the prices at this A-plus are higher, it is typically an independent.

  3. Here’s an article I read last month and dug up (you need to register to read the whole thing). But here’s a blurb to give you a quick gist:

    Article 1 of 562; 1135 words

    Competing at the pump with your supplier
    Source: Tony Gnoffo Inquirer Staff Writer

    A gallon of regular gasoline was selling for $3.71 late last week at the Sunoco station at 1491 N. Providence Rd. in Media.

    About 270 yards away, the Sunoco station at 1300 N. Providence Rd. was selling regular for $3.68.

    The two stations were selling gasoline produced by Sunoco Inc. at one of its three Philadelphia area refineries in South Philadelphia, West Deptford and Marcus Hook.

    The difference? The station at 1300 is owned and operated by Sunoco. The station at 1491 is leased

    Published on 2008-05-11, Page D01, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

    (/The first article)

  4. I’ll stop in tonight and find out. One or more of their permits will need to be in plain sight, and the ownership information will be posted there.

    Regardless of who owns them, the same rules still apply. Visa and Mastercard require all merchants to adhere to the “no minimum” rule (and the “no ID” rule). With gas profits at record highs, I have a hard time believing that ANY gas station, regardless of franchise status, is struggling right now.

    But there’s a big difference between the owner of a one-off small restaurant in midtown and the owner of an A-Plus franchise. The A-Plus owner greatly benefits from brand awareness due to tremendous promotional assistance from the corporation. Not only in the form of advertising, but also in merchandising, purchasing agreements, negotiating power with suppliers, that sort of thing. They’re on two completely different playing fields. The courtesy of “letting it pass” that I give to the pizza shop up the street doesn’t apply on this scale.

  5. Regarding the state stores asking for ID on liquor credit card transactions. I have only had this happen to me at the store in Lower Paxton on 22, but it has happened multiple times there. I’ve presented the booze, they ring it up and tell me a total. I present the credit card and THEN they ask for ID> I got the feeling that they wouldn’t have IDed me if I paid cash.

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