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More gas pains: cash only coming?

| Friday, June 20, 2008

Gene Fink paid more than $2,700 in credit card fees last month from the service station he owns in Aspinwall.

"It is a very high expense," he said, noting that his automotive repair business is keeping him afloat. "People all think we're making a gazillion dollars now."

Fink's woes are shared by other station owners and are increasing as the ability to pay at the pump might be in jeopardy. A gasoline retailers association in Philadelphia is urging its members to stop taking credit cards because of the fees they must pay to credit card companies.

"Our members are getting killed. Credit card gas is costing our dealers in excess of 8 cents a gallon, and many are working on a 10-cent per gallon margin," said Ross DiBono, executive director of the 600-member Pennsylvania Gasoline Retailers Association.

In Western Pennsylvania, the 350 members of the Petroleum Retailers and Automotive Repair Association haven't gone that far yet, said the group's president, Hugh Campbell. But the organization might advocate cash-only purchases soon.

"The higher the price of gasoline, the bigger the problem," Campbell said.

Station operators nationwide say higher gas prices mean higher credit card fees for them, squeezing pump profits.

Amid complaints against the so-called interchange fee -- a percentage of the sale price paid to credit card companies on each transaction -- a growing number of operators are suspending credit card sales.

It's a two-edged sword, Campbell said.

"There's so many people who can't carry around $100 to fill up their tank," he said.

Mike Daley, 26 of Wilmerding has used a credit card to take some of the sting out of $4 gallons of gas. The sales rep for a security agency said he hopes cash-only pumps don't catch on.

"I'll go somewhere else," Daley said. "You gotta do what you gotta do."

The cash-only push comes as Congress considers legislation that would allow merchants to bargain collectively with major credit and debit card companies.

The proposed Credit Card Fair Fee Act has the support of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Convenience Stores, called the card bans "a last resort that demonstrates how desperate retailers are to get change."

Convenience stores paid $7.6 billion in credit card fees last year, while making $3.4 billion profits, the group said.

Although the percentage of the interchange fee is fixed, usually under 2 percent, the dollar amount of the fee goes up with the price of the goods or services. As gas tops $4 a gallon, that pushes fees toward 10 cents a gallon. Stations that typically mark up gas by 11 or 12 cents a gallon are seeing profits shrink or even reverse.

Fink said he buys gas from the distributor for $3.97 a gallon. He sells it for $4.05, but when someone uses plastic, Fink has to pay the credit card company up to 13 cents a gallon, nearly double his potential profit.

The average retailer last year made 1.5 cents per gallon on the 4,000 gallons sold a day, earning $60, Lenard said.

Independently owned stores that sell gas are feeling a double hit, said David McCorkle, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents supermarkets and convenience stores.

"The higher the gas price, the less they spend in other areas," he said.

George Bando has watched the profits on a gallon of gas at his Youngwood service station drop from 5 to 8 cents a gallon to just 2 cents a gallon.

"It's cutting the profit out of your gas," he said.

The credit card companies told The Associated Press that the fees are just part of the cost of doing business. Using credit cards at the pump offers convenience, security and can increase sales, representatives for Visa and MasterCard said.

Some retailers believe they have little choice but to continue to accept plastic.

Half of the 150 daily customers at Ron Yosi's Caste Village Automotive in Whitehall pay with credit cards.

"We don't have much of a choice in that," Yosi said. "A lot of people rely on their credit cards."

Tom Soisson, owner of Soisson Service Station in Connellsville, is trying to sell the service station his father started in 1944 and is considering closing its fuel pumps.

"We're an old, full-service station. I've tried to play the game for a while and hang in with the price, but my price is always higher," he said.

Additional Information:

Who sells gasoline•

After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, more states began allowing self-service fueling, so the number of convenience store gasoline outlets grew.

Convenience stores in 2006 sold about 82 percent of all gasoline and diesel fuel purchased in the United States. In 1971, just 6.8 percent of convenience stores -- of 1,401 stores nationwide -- sold gasoline.

Hypermarkets or hypermarts, mass retailers that include supermarkets, discount retailers and warehouse clubs are a growing segment, selling 14.2 billion gallons of gas last year.

Source: National Association of Convenience Stores Additional Information:

Driving less

Americans are driving less for the sixth month in a row as fuel prices continue to climb and the number of riders taking mass transit increased.

Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer miles in April than the same month last year and 400 million miles less than in March of this year.

The high cost of gasoline has cut highway travel by almost 20 billion miles during the first four months of this year. Highway travel is down nearly 30 billion miles since November.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

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