In The World According To William, whenever possible people will know how much they are paying for something when they decide to buy, rent, or gain a service. Companies will not rely of costumer error for their profit margins.

Fuel tanks and rental cars are a tricky business. If a person refills his tank, everybody is (theoretically) happy. If a customer does not refill his tank, that can be a real pain for the rental agency because they not only have to refill the tank but also (theoretically) have to pay someone to go refill it. Of course, they’re not going to take that hit. So customers that forget to fill up are charged exorbitant per-gallon rates. Or, if they’re so inclined, they are spared the inconvenience of filling up by agreeing to purchase a full tank at a reduced price. And I guess we learn to accept this as the way things are. Then they throw out a curveball and I suddenly find myself in the role of Angry Consumer. A role I am generally not accustomed to.

Budget Rent-a-Car has a policy (which apparently has been done elsewhere, though I’ve never seen it) where if you drive less than 75 miles, you have to provide a receipt that you refilled the gas tank or you face a $16 surcharge. The reason for this, presumably, is because sometimes a gas tank will read as full even if a person has driven 60 miles. Thus, unless they’re provided with a receipt they just have to send a guy to the gas station and refill it and that costs them (all things considered) $16. Or something like that.

For some reason, this is sort of a last straw for me. I guess the reason is that it feels like people like me are being targeted. People that are pretty conscientious about refilling gas tanks but not always about collecting receipts. It’s sort of like how a big reason behind the whole “mail-in rebate” are because people like me forget to mail in the dang thing so that’s free money for them. I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to do business that way or that such things should be illegal, but… no… any time I have the choice of whether or not to do business with a company that does this sort of thing, I will choose not to.

If someone drives 25 miles and gas gauge still reads as being full, are they really going to refill it? Seriously? I am supremely skeptical. Or are they going to pocket the $16 and let the next guy take care of it? There’s no accountability here. Nobody is looking. The next guy is not going to notice that his gauge went down just a little faster than it should have. First, he’s driving a car that is not his own. Second, if he raises that suspicion, the agency can and will say “Well, there’s no accounting for gas gauges, you know.”

The entire notion that they have to refill it is in fact questionable. I’ve rented cars before that were 3/4 full and in at least one case that was 1/4 full. All I had to do was return it more than 1/4 full. I ended up leaving it probably 3/8 full. I did their work for them… but was not reimbursed for my trouble. Heck, if it costs them that much, they should just offer customers with half-full tanks a rebate if they full the tank to the top. If gas costs $2.50 a gallon, give me $2.75 and I’ll fill it right up. Heck, just give me my money back and we’ll be square as far as I’m concerned. I’d take my chances on losing a receipt for that and would probably prefer it to the opaque manner now in which “full” is determined.

Or if there is this absolute necessity that the tank be full at all times, don’t charge $5 a gallon but charge an upfront fee plus market rates for gasoline. A sign saying “Hey, if we have to refill your tank it will cost you $10 plus the cost of gasoline. That way, people would realize that they’re looking at least at $10 plus whatever the cost of the fill-up is. They won’t have to read the fine print to find out how much they’re going to be dinged. It’s a large enough number that they won’t put the rental agency through the inconvenience of having to fill up nearly as often. Of course, if they did that then they wouldn’t have the poor schmo that forgets to fill up a half-empty tank that they get to bilk for twice the market price.

And that, ultimately, is what this is all about. Hiding costs. Yes, Budget puts up a nice little sign letting you know that you will be charged if you lose your receipt. But a lot of people are going to forget that and when they do… free money for Budget! Or they will lose track of mileage and… free money for Budget! Some schmo forgets to refill his gas tank, they leave it for the next person and if they’re like me they will overdo it a bit because it’s impossible to get right and they’ve collected free money from the schmo! It’s enough to recall the wisdom of Charlie Belcher.

Some people like this business model. My friend Rick and I used to go back and forth on Best Buy’s old mail-in rebate model. From his perspective, provided that you sent the rebate in, you got your money. What’s unfair about that? From my perspective, they’re making money off people paying $100 for a VCR they thought they were only going to pay $80. Or how Blockbuster’s profit margin depended primarily on people forgetting to return videos on time so a video that they expected to pay $3 for instead became $15. When the business model relies on customers screwing themselves over, I find that rather aggravating even in those cases where I come out ahead on the deal.

I don’t like doing business with sneaks.

Category: Market

About the Author

4 Responses to TWATW: Sneaky Business

  1. Peter says:

    It may be just an urban legend, but rumor has it that when Denver’s new airport opened in the 1990’s, it was so far from the nearest gas station that people who returned cars to on-site rental companies literally could not return the cars with full tanks (by the rental companies’ definition) and therefore could not avoid paying extortionate refueling fees.

  2. Kirk says:

    After parking it, just top it off with water.

  3. trumwill says:

    Peter, from what I understand of the remoteness of DIA, that wouldn’t surprise. Strikes me as one of those “facts” that is too juicy to be true.

    Kirk, I don’t hate rental agencies that much. Well, maybe Alamo, but not the others. My wife may throw Avis in there, too.

  4. Linus says:

    Crap, I hope that’s not true about DIA…I’m returning a rental car there first thing tomorrow morning. Weird coincidence…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.